90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station

Download the WORD DOCUMENT VERSION (67K) or read below.

Testing DNA and the Death Penalty

The majority of Americans believe in capital punishment, and are confident that the criminal justice system, while not perfect, does work. Advances in DNA research, however, which have led to the exoneration of death row inmates, are causing people to take a serious second look at the reliability of the criminal justice system. In this lesson students will explore the issues surrounding the death penalty debate and participate in a values-clarification activity to help them form their opinions on this topic. Students will also create a talk show to discuss the issues involved with DNA testing and the death penalty.

Grade Levels: 9-12

Subject Areas: Civics, language arts, thinking and reasoning

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to
· analyze the issues surrounding capital punishment.
· express views on capital punishment.
· synthesize information from a variety of sources.
· interpret facts and express meaning through writing activities.

Building Background Activity - Two 50-minute class periods
Activity One - Two 50-minute class periods
Activity Two - Three 50-minute class periods and one homework assignment

Standard 13
Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity
Level IV Grade: 9-12
2. Knows why people may agree on values or principles in the abstract but disagree when they are applied to specific issues such as the right to life and capital punishment

Language Arts
Standard 2
Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
Level IV Grade: 9-12
Standard 7
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Listening and Speaking
Standard 8
Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Level IV Grade: 9-12

Thinking and Reasoning
Standard 6
Applies decision-making techniques
Level IV Grade: 9-12

Internet Access

Bookmark the following sites:


Building Background
Activity One

The purpose of this activity is for students to build background on the controversy surrounding the death penalty and to participate in a values-clarification activity to examine, or determine, their feelings and beliefs on this emotional and controversial topic.

Stating your position
1. Designate five areas in the room that will be used to represent students' positions on the death penalty.

  • Area one will be for students who unequivocally support the death penalty.
  • Area two will be for students who believe in the death penalty, but think it should be used in a more judicious manner.
  • Area three is for students who are unsure, or have mixed feelings.
  • Area four is for students who generally oppose the death penalty, but feel that it can be used in extreme cases.
  • Area five is for students who strongly oppose the death penalty in all situations.

2. Ask students to go to the number that best describes their position on capital punishment.
3. Instruct students to find someone who has a different number from theirs and spend ten minutes discussing their views on capital punishment. After five minutes, ask the students to switch roles and clearly explain their partner's position.

Researching the issues
4. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the research topics listed below. Tell students that they are going to research the views of people who support, and people who oppose, the death penalty. Ask students to gather information on both sides of the issue.

Does the existence of capital punishment deter crime?
Is the death penalty an appropriate punishment for certain crimes?
Is capital punishment applied arbitrarily?
Racial Bias
Are minorities and poor people more likely to receive the death penalty?
Does it cost more to keep people in jail for life than to execute them?
Executing the innocent
Should the risk of executing an innocent person factor into the use of the death penalty?

Teacher Note: When researching on the Internet, it is important to determine the reliability of the information contained on the site. This site from Purdue University provides a tutorial that addresses the issues of accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage. You may want to send students to this site before they begin this activity. http://www.lib.purdue.edu/InternetEval/index.html

5. Ask groups to collect information on their topic. These Web sites may be used as a resource to begin research.
6. After students have finished researching, ask each group to share its information with the class.
7. Record the information on a class chart. When finished, the class chart should contain a list of the six topics, with facts and opinions from both sides of the argument. **SEE CHART**

Revisiting your position
8. Ask students to line up on the numbers according to how they now stand on the capital punishment issue. Discuss any changes that might have occurred between the two times. The following is a suggested list of discussion questions:

  • What was your position at the beginning of this activity?
  • Has your position changed? Explain.
  • What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this topic? Explain.
  • Do you think you have a more in-depth understanding of this issue after researching the topic? Explain.

Activity One
In this activity students will listen to, or read, the "Testing DNA and the Death Penalty" radio program.

1. Play the "Testing DNA and the Death Penalty" radio program found at
2. Ask students to take notes on how advances in DNA testing are impacting the criminal justice system.
3. Provide time for students to browse and read the links on the site. 4. The following is a suggested list of questions to help initiate a class discussion after listening to the program and viewing the Web site:

Do you think that the criminal justice system works and that it is basically fair? Explain.

  • Were you surprised that the courts convicted Earl Washington? Explain.
  • What does the Earl Washington case say about the system?
  • In what ways might the advances in DNA research change the criminal justice system?
  • Do you agree with Gary Close, the County Prosecutor in Culpepper, Virginia, when he stated that the respect for science has been elevated to "almost religious faith"? Explain.
  • Do you think that Roger Coleman's DNA should be re-tested? Explain.
  • Do you think that the public has a right to know if Roger Coleman was innocent? Explain.
  • What, if anything, do you think should be done when a person is released from jail after being convicted of a crime they didn't commit? Such as compensation, formal apology,etc.
  • Do you agree with Kenneth Stolle, State Senator from Virginia Beach, when he talked about the death penalty being flawed but justified? Explain.
  • Did this program cause you to re-think any of your opinions concerning capital punishment? Explain

Activity Two
In this activity students will examine the issues of DNA and capital punishment through the creation of a talk show. The talk show will be based on an imaginary bill in Congress calling for a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment. Students will research various perspectives on the subject, assume an imaginary role based on this information and become a character for the talk show.

The talk show panel will consist of the following seven people:

  • A DNA expert
  • A person featured on the "Stories of Innocence and Exoneration from the Center on Wrongful Convictions" section of the Web site
  • A member from the Justice for All organization
  • Governor George Ryan
  • Earl Washington
  • A member of Roger Coleman's family
  • Talk show host

1. Tell students to imagine that there is a bill in Congress calling for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty. Their assignment is to create a talk show that will discuss the issues surrounding the moratorium.
2. Create seven small groups based on the preceding list of participants. Explain to students that some of the people in the talk show, like Earl Washington and Governor Ryan, are based on real people, other people, such as the DNA expert or a member of the Justice for All organization, will be fictitious. Tell students that their job is to examine the issues from the perspective of their chosen character and portray this person in the talk show.
Teacher Note: The talk show group may require more students than the other groups.
3. Each group, except for the talk show host group, will complete the following tasks:

  • Research its assigned person or organization
  • Discuss what it thinks its person's views on a capital punishment moratorium might be
  • Develop the character by writing an outline of this person's, or organization's, life story or history
  • Prepare answers for the host's questions
  • Choose one person from the group to portray the person in the talk show

4. The talk show host group will be responsible for the following:

  • Research each talk show member
  • Generate a list of questions for the show
  • Provide each group with a list of possible discussion questions so they can prepare their answers
  • Decide on a format for the show
  • Decide how to ensure that all participants will have an opportunity to speak and be heard without interruption
  • Decide how to include the audience in the discussion
  • Choose one person from the group to play the role of the talk show host

5. These sites provide information about the talk show participants.

Group One
Governor George Ryan
DNA, the Law, and the Politics of the Death Penalty Debate
Anthony Brooks Interviews Governor George Ryan

Group Two
Earl Washington
Fatal Flaws: The Case of Earl Washington
Washington's Statement to the Police
Governor's Pardons
Earl Washington's Legal Timeline

Group Three
A DNA Expert
Science of DNA
Nova Online's Cracking the Code of Life Web site

Group Four
A member from Roger Coleman's family
Did Virginia Execute an Innocent Man? The story of Roger Coleman
May God Have Mercy

Group Five
"Other Stories of Innocence and Exoneration from the Center on Wrongful Convictions"
A person featured on the Stories of Innocence and Exoneration from the Center on Wrongful Convictions section of the Web site
Center on Wrongful Convictions

Group Six
A member from the Justice for All organization
Justice of All's Pro-death Penalty Web site

Group Seven
Talk show host
Use the Web sites listed for all of the groups to generate your questions for the talk show.

6. Stage the talk show.

Teacher Note: It might be useful to discuss talk show protocol before the talk show begins.

Suggested talk show guidelines

  • Allow each panel member time to speak without interruption.
  • Make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
  • Provide opportunities for audience participation and questions.
  • Allow students to argue their point of view.

7. After the talk show, ask students to write a letter to the editor expressing their point of view on the issue of a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment.

Extension Activities

Watch the movie The Green Mile and discuss how the story might have been different if DNA evidence had been available during this time period.

Visit the Death Penalty Art Website at
http://www.newsart.com/x/x9.htm. Ask students to choose one of the drawings and respond to it in writing.

Read Sister Helen Prejean's book Dead Man Walking. Select excerpts from the book and have the class act them out. This would be a good opportunity for students to play the role of a person who has a view that's opposite their own.


Teacher Evaluation
Observe students in the following areas:

  • Growth in cognitive skills
  • Interactions that occur during group work
  • Growth in social skills
  • Growth in attitudes toward learning
  • onference with each student on these topics:
    • His or her goals
    • Strategies for learning
    • Solutions to problems

Student Self Evaluation
What did I learn from this project?
What do I still want to learn about this topic?
What part of my work on this project gives me a sense of achievement?
What would I do differently next time?
In what ways was I able to work with others on this project?
What did I like most about this project?

Home | Death Row Stories | Science of DNA | Law & Politics
Inside Out | Credits | WBUR