In Brief

Recently, capital punishment has been under increased scrutiny. Efforts to abolish or impose a moratorium on the death penalty are multiplying. Many people, including bar associations, members of Congress, and leaders of religious organizations are raising concerns about the application of the death penalty, and new ballot initiatives are making an appearance. Several states have called for studies of the fairness and justice of the death penalty.

Centered on a controversial issue of great public concern, this unit is designed to facilitate critical thinking, citizen responsibility and voice, and writing and cooperative group work.

In this unit, students will be introduced to issues and opinions concerning capital punishment in a Web/classroom/group-work environment. Their research reports will be publicly debated in a legislative/town meeting, where a decision on the issue will be made.

Students will begin this unit by reviewing and rendering a decision on four actual death penalty cases. They will then research in groups to examine critically the concept and practice of capital punishment, engage in a role play simulation, present their findings to a group representing a legislative body that will consider their presentations, and determine whether their state should support, abolish, or impose a moratorium on the death penalty.


The purpose of this unit is to prepare students to take on the roles of responsible and informed citizens, and to work cooperatively in a safe classroom environment where differences of opinion can be productively expressed in the process of coming to a decision on a serious matter. As citizens in a democracy, students will struggle with their own opinions in creating a public position regarding fairness and justice as it relates to capital punishment. The group work will give students first-hand experience in dealing with the dynamics of democratic decision-making based on the assumption that public opinion trickles up via grass roots efforts, opinion polls, and citizen voice. As students examine who is eligible to serve on a capital case, review and discuss four actual cases including the stories of the victims involved, explore arguments for and against the death penalty including expert testimony, review the current methods of execution, and interpret demographic information provided on the site, the issues of fairness and justice will be at the forefront.


Students will thoughtfully consider the central issues concerning the death penalty, utilizing information provided on the Web site. They will also engage in critical self-reflection on the issue and learn to negotiate their personal positions as they work in groups for the purpose of creating public policy. Students will do their own research, produce a report, and debate group research findings via a role-play scenario with appropriate support for their positions, culminating in a class decision to support, abolish, or impose a moratorium on the death penalty. In addition to their group’s report, the suggestions they offer and the class’s final decision, students will also reflect on their own position at the beginning and at the end of the unit through personal essays.


Citizen agency and voice; issues of fairness and justice with regard to capital punishment; examination and negotiation of individual and collective opinions; the democratic decision-making process; personal/persuasive essay writing.


2 weeks +

Materials needed:

  1. Computer lab with Internet capabilities
  2. PowerPoint software or poster board and related display materials (for group presentations)
  3. Death Penalty Main Site:
    1. Based on your beliefs, would you be chosen to serve as a juror on a capital case? (to help examine their initial perspectives and prepare them for the cases they will be given)
    2. Four Death Penalty Case Studies (to serve as real life examples for their deliberation, reports and discussion)
    3. Arguments and expert testimony for and against the death penalty (to explore the various positions and use of evidence)
    4. Methods of Execution (to use as evidence of cruel and unusual punishment or as humane methods of terminating a life)
    5. State-by-State Data (to use in investigating issues of fairness and justice - especially regarding differences between states and ethnicity)Secondarily:
    6. History of the death penalty (to provide historical context, thematic illustration of past and present public opinion, and to serve as evidence for reports)
    7. Stages in a capital case (to show the process, from commission of the crime through trial, sentencing, and appeals)
    8. Current events (to make connections between the simulations and issues influencing current public opinion)


Initial and final position paper; know/want to know notes; reflection papers on group work dynamics; group research projects and role-play presentations.