The Death Penalty: Right or Wrong?

The Death Penalty: Right or Wrong?
Pat Nixon: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Three to five class periods


In 1972, while Pat and Richard Nixon were in the White House, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down most state laws enabling the death penalty.  The Court did not strike down the dealth penalty itself, but ruled that the language of the laws enabling it were "arbitrary and capricious," and as such, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  It would be seven years before the next person was executed by the state (Utah) under laws that had been substantially rewritten.


Students who participate in this activity will gain an understanding of the arguments that underlie the debate on the death penalty in the United States, as well as gain practice in synthesizing information, creating and presenting arguments, and engaging in debate.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials about capital punishment; a PowerPoint or other presentation program (optional); materials for posters (optional).


1.  Introduce the lesson by asking students if they are aware of recent debates over capital punishment, particularly the introduction of new DNA technology that has resulted in the release of a number of prisoners who have been wrongly incarcerated, and the actions of some state governors (notably Illinois) who have turned all death sentances into life without parole sentances.

2.  Using the websites listed below, divide the class into several groups, each one responsible for researching one aspect of this topic:

  • history of the death penalty
  • stages in a capital case
  • methods of execution still used and where
  • the details of Furman v. Georgia 408 U.S. 153 (1972)
  • arguments for the death penalty
  • arguments against the death penalty
  • the status of the death penalty in Illinois

3.  When the research is complete, ask students to share their information, either verbally, or through posters or PowerPoint presentations.

4.  Engage students in discussion about their findings.  Students may also engage in a formal debate or deliberation on the issue.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended in a number of ways:

Sources & Resources:


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.