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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
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
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
Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
Level IV Grade: 9-12
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret
a variety of informational texts
Listening and Speaking
Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Level IV Grade: 9-12
Thinking and Reasoning
Applies decision-making techniques
Level IV Grade: 9-12
Bookmark the following sites:
PROCEDURES FOR TEACHERS
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
- 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?
Are minorities and poor people more likely to receive the death
Does it cost more to keep people in jail for life than to execute
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
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.
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?
- 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?
- 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
- Did this program cause you to re-think any of your opinions
concerning capital punishment? Explain
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
- 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
5. These sites provide information about the talk show participants.
Governor George Ryan
DNA, the Law, and the Politics of the Death Penalty Debate
Anthony Brooks Interviews Governor George Ryan
Fatal Flaws: The Case of Earl Washington
Washington's Statement to the Police
Earl Washington's Legal Timeline
A DNA Expert
Science of DNA
Nova Online's Cracking the Code of Life Web site
A member from Roger Coleman's family
Did Virginia Execute an Innocent Man? The story of Roger Coleman
May God Have Mercy
"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
A member from the Justice for All organization
Justice of All's Pro-death Penalty Web site
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.
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
Ask students to choose one of the drawings and respond to it in
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.
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?
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