For Educators

The Death Penalty – Procedures For Teachers

PrepPreparing for the lesson
StepsConducting the lesson
ExtensionAdditional Activities


Media Components

Computer Resources:

  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.
  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running Windows® 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM.
    Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM.
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0 or higher. Download the free Adobe Acrobat reader here:

Bookmarked sites:

TIP: Prior to teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create a word processing document listing all of the Web sites. Preview all sites and videos before presenting them to the class.

  • Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly Viewer’s Guide 2002
    Scroll down to “Steps” and then download Viewers Guide 2002. Scroll to page 14, Religion and the Death Penalty by Michael Kress (p14-17), which provides a good overview of the various views on the death penalty within religious communities and statistics illustrating public opinion on the issue. Also includes some useful “Questions for Exploration,” some of which are appropriate for this age group. [Terms to introduce to students: evangelical; religious denominations; abolition; exoneration; moratorium]
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Cover Story — Capital Punishment: Retribution or Justice? May 11, 2001
    Presents various religious leaders’ views on the death penalty (in the context of the sentencing of Timothy McVeigh to death for the Oklahoma City bombing). To view a video clip of this show: Go to the top right column, titled “Videos,” and then download and view the first one on capital punishment.
  • Religious — Capital Punishment
    After an interesting list of quotations illustrating different views on capital punishment, you can scroll down to an excellent and brief overview area. Then, in “Topics Covered in this Section,” one can explore facts about the death penalty and pro and con arguments.
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Transcript — Show #344, June 30, 2000 Profile of Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative
    Scroll halfway through the transcript of this show to where Bob Abernethy says, “Now the death penalty and one man’s fight to save convicted criminals from being executed.” This area of the transcript profiles the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has dedicated his career to representing people on death row.
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: News – Justice Scalia on Death Penalty. February 1, 2002.
    Coverage of Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s opinion of the Catholic Church’s stand against the death penalty. Includes various interpretations of the Church’s teaching and historical position on the death penalty.


Teachers will need the following supplies:

  • Board and/or chart paper
  • Ideally a screen on which to project the Web-based video clips
  • Handouts of Web resources if computers are not available in the classroom

Students will need the following supplies:

  • Computers with the capacities indicated above
  • Notebook or journal
  • Pens/pencils
  • Dictionaries


Introductory Activity:

1. Elicit from students what they know about the death penalty by posting the following questions on the board:

    (1) What is capital punishment/the death penalty?
    (2) Why do we have it?
    (3) Why do many support it?
    (4) Why do many oppose it?
    (5) What’s your position on the death penalty? Why do you hold this position? On a scale of 1 to 5, how convinced are you of the rightness of your position?

2. Call on volunteers to answer questions 1-4, and track students’ answers on chart paper. Allow time for students to discuss each question and for students to add to, or challenge, one another’s answers.

3. Ask students to respond to question number 5 in their notebooks or journals. Remind them that in the next few days they will be exploring both sides of the issue more thoroughly, and that as part of their final presentation they will be asked to consider whether their position has changed at all.

Learning Activities:

Activity One: Introduction to the Controversy

1. Ask for a volunteer to remind the class what happened in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Let a couple of students offer an explanation and then, if needed, tell students that, until Sept. 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. 168 people were left dead.

2. Explain that Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for the Oklahoma bombing. His sentence stirred up controversy over the use of the death penalty, and numerous religious leaders and organizations protested his execution. Others felt McVeigh’s sentence was just. Tell the class that they are going to view a video clip that explores the controversy generated by the McVeigh execution. Ask them to complete the following task as they view the video clip: identify one argument presented by religious leaders in favor of the death penalty for McVeigh and one argument presented by religious leaders opposed to the death penalty for McVeigh. Students should record their answers in their notebooks.

3. Have the class view the video clip from the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly Cover Story: Capital Punishment: Retribution or Justice? May 11, 2001 (7 minutes and 20 seconds). (Go to the section titled “Videos,” and download the one about capital punishment.)

4. Pose the following questions for discussion and call on volunteers to respond. Allow time for students to question or challenge one another, and to consider the meaning of new vocabulary.

  • What is one argument presented by religious leaders in favor of the death penalty for McVeigh and one argument presented by religious leaders opposed to the death penalty for McVeigh.
  • Summarize the viewpoints of the two reverends (one pro and one anti capital punishment) interviewed. How do they differ most?
  • What does retribution mean? How is capital punishment a form of retribution? Is capital punishment the best way of delivering justice to criminals?
  • Why have some states and many citizens argued for a moratorium on executions? What does moratorium mean?

Activity Two: Fact-finding and exploring pro and con positions

1. Refer students to and highlight the fact that an evaluation of their work will be based on their performance in a number of main areas:

  • Participation in class discussion
  • Reading of articles and transcripts, and thorough responses to questions
  • Definition of new terms in Activity 2, to be handed in
  • Quality of participation in group work
  • Completion of the Exploring Controversial Issues organizer, to be handed in after Activity 2
  • Serious preparation for interviews with religious leaders and/or members of the community (a draft of interview questions should be due before students conduct the interviews)
  • Performance on the culminating activity: a presentation of their interview findings and their personal opinion regarding capital punishment (with facts to back it up)

2. Divide the class into groups of 4. Randomly assign one pair in each group to the “support for the death penalty” readings and the other pair to the “opposition to the death penalty” readings. Tell the class that the assignment of these views is only for further exploration of what proponents and opponents argue, and assignment does not necessarily reflect students’ own opinions.

  • Have students go to:
  • For the purposes of this lesson, tell students that they’re going to focus on the last three topics: Retribution, Innocence, and Arbitrariness and Discrimination.
  • The pair focusing on support for the death penalty should click on the Agree button under Retribution, the Disagree button under Innocence, and the Disagree button under Arbitrariness and Discrimination to get to the articles they should read.
  • The pair focusing on opposition to the death penalty should click on the Disagree button under Retribution, the Agree button under Innocence, and the Agree button under Arbitrariness and Discrimination to get to the articles they should read.
  • In addition, since the latest data on the death penalty has changed since these articles were written, hand out Death Penalty Data (as of 2002).

3. Allow 20-30 minutes of reading time, and have students do two things in their notebooks while they read: (1) keep a list of any new terms they come across, and (2) take notes on what proponents or opponents argue in these readings

4. The pair that explored the position in support of the death penalty will now work together to define the new words they listed. The other pair does the same. Students should draw on one another’s knowledge and use dictionaries to define new words. (You might mention a few of the “big” ones from the readings so students can add them to their lists if they do not have them already. These include: retribution, moratorium, DNA evidence.) Students will hand in their new term definitions at the end of the class.

5. Each “side” will now present what they have learned about the position they explored. Each pair should share from their notes, while the rest of the small group listens and takes notes. Urge students to ask one another any clarifying questions, and allow an extra 5 minutes for open discussion following the presentations.

6. Individually, students will now complete the Exploring Controversial Issues handout (to be turned in). Students should fill out both columns, labeling Position One: “Main Arguments in Support of the Death Penalty,” and Position Two: “Main Arguments in Opposition to the Death Penalty.” Urge students to draw on the notes they took during the readings and while listening to others in their small groups.

HOMEWORK: Tell students to prepare 10 questions for interviews with community members about their viewpoints on the death penalty. Refer students to the Tips for Interviewing handout and Interview Planning Sheet organizer (make sure to hand these out in advance of the homework assignment). Interviews can be conducted with family members, religious figures, neighbors, teachers, or friends — but students must be sure to have some variety among their respondents, including at least one representative from a religious community or institution. (Ask friends and family, or use the phone book, to identify local religious leaders your students could interview.)

Activity Three: Exploring religious communities’ responses to the death penalty

1. Students hand in homework (10 interview questions), which you should return the following day.

2. Have students read Religion and the Death Penalty by Michael Kress, pages 14-17 in the Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly Viewer’s Guide 2002:
(Scroll down to “Steps” and then download Viewers Guide 2002. Go to page 14 of the guide.) Ask them to write down any new vocabulary words they come across as they read.

3. As a class, define the new terms that students identified in the reading. Urge students to write these definitions in their notebooks. Then, distribute the Quotes from Religious Leaders handout, which contains quotes from the article.

4. Ask for volunteers to interpret these quotes in their own words. Make sure students understand both quotes by listening to their interpretations, and allow students to respectfully add to one another’s comments.

5. Think, Pair, Share
Have students partner up. Explain that you will be posting some questions, and that you want each pair to do the following (you might want to post an abbreviated outline of these tasks on the board):

  • Read and make sure they understand the questions (ask one another or the teacher for further explanation).
  • Take 3-5 minutes (have students time themselves) to individually write short responses — not necessarily full sentences — to each of the questions.
  • Each partner presents his/her answers to the questions; the partner who is not presenting listens respectfully.
  • The partners discuss the similarities and differences in their answers.
  • Sharing out: One person from each pair will share that pair’s thoughts on questions number 1, 2, or 4 with the rest of the class. The teacher will track these responses on the board or on chart paper.

6. Post the following questions from the article and let students begin:

  • What role should religious groups play in advocating for or against capital punishment?
  • What do you think about people citing verses from the Bible or from other religious texts to defend their views (or attack other’s views) about the death penalty or other social issues?
  • If you have a religious tradition/identity, do you know what your religion says about the death penalty? How much, if at all, is your opinion on capital punishment influenced by your religious background?
  • The Rev. Verity Jones says that the problem with capital punishment is “what it says about us.” What do you think the death penalty says about us as a nation?

Homework: Schedule interviews with all your interviewees for the next 2 -3 days.

Activity Four: Work on interview skills and conduct mock interviews

1. Hand back interview questions with comments/suggestions.

2. Discuss interview techniques and guidelines, reviewing the Tips for Interviewing handout students received.

  • Have volunteers read each bulleted point from the handout. Allow students to give examples of each one to illustrate their understanding.

3. Model an interview for the class by selecting a student as your subject, and ask a set of questions (modeling the appropriate body language as well — active listening, etc.). The following is an example of how you might choose to model an interview:

  • What is your full name, your age and occupation?
  • What are your feelings about the school’s no gum policy?
  • What are some ways the school administration might compromise with students on this issue?

4. Have students partner up and conduct mock interviews with one another, using the interview questions that were returned at the beginning of class. Remind the interviewing students to keep notes on their interviewee’s responses and that these responses can even be used as part of their project.

Homework (if possible, for two nights): Conduct interviews (can include phone interviews and e-mail interviews). Remind students to take organized, legible notes, and to make sure they record the name, age and other relevant information on each respondent.

Culminating Activity/Assessment: Position-development and student presentations

1. Explain the nature of the final presentation to students:

  • Students will individually present the findings of their interviews by:
    1. Summarizing some of the general views and sentiments expressed by those interviewed,
    2. Sharing some quotes to illustrate different views, and
    3. Drawing some conclusions about what religious, social or other factors influenced interviewee’s opinions.
  • Students will present their own position on the issue of capital punishment, indicating whether or not that position has changed in the course of the lesson and what new information they have gathered to support their own views. Students should:
    1. Present facts and arguments that support their positions.
    2. Address whether religious convictions and/or identities have influenced the formation of their opinions. And, if so, how?
    3. Include visuals if at all possible.

2. Have students suggest how their performance on this project might be assessed. Track their responses on chart paper. Then share the Rubric for Culminating Project, and explain that these are the elements that you will be evaluating students on. Ask the class if any of those that they identified are missing from your rubric. If they are, you might agree to incorporate all or some of them into the rubric.

3. Pose the following questions for students to reflect on in their notebooks: Has your view on the death penalty changed at all during the course of this unit? If so, how? If not, what new information have you learned that supports your view on the issue?

Instruct students to use this reflection to guide them in the development of their presentations.

4. Allow class preparation time. Students should use this time to review their interview notes, prepare summary statements, and develop their own positions by organizing supporting arguments and facts for presentation.

Homework: Students work on their presentations, including the preparation of visuals.

5. Student presentations:

  • As each student presents, the rest of the class should take notes and record any questions they have for the presenters.
  • Allow some time after each presentation for students to ask questions of one another.


  • Have students watch the film Dead Man Walking. They could examine the role of Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist who befriends and advocates for a death row inmate.
  • Students can conduct case studies of death row inmates who have been exonerated due to DNA evidence, often after spending years on death row.
  • Study the death penalty moratorium movement and examine the studies and cases that influenced the states of Illinois and Maryland to declare a moratorium on the death penalty.
  • Does the death penalty work as a deterrent? Students can study this question by considering research on the subject and by profiling states where the death penalty is used widely.
  • Students can explore President George Bush’s track record as governor of Texas, the state that has conducted more executions than any other in this nation.
  • Study the use of the death penalty in unusual circumstances, such as with minors and those who are mentally retarded.