The Candidates on the Death Penalty

November 1, 2015

In this brief Teachable Instant activity, students learn some facts about the death penalty, discuss the 2016 presidential candidates' positions on the issue, and consider strongest arguments for and against capital punishment.   


Some facts about the death penalty

Share the following information with students:

  • The death penalty is legal in thirty-one states and in federal law.
  • Since 1976, there have been 1419 executions in the United States (25 so far in 2015).
  • Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia account for over half of the executions.
  • Since 1973, over 150 inmates slated for execution have been found innocent.
  • People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 % of total executions since 1976; 55% of those currently awaiting execution are people of color.
  • 56% of Americans favor the death penalty and 38% oppose it.
  • No presidential candidate since 1988 has opposed the death penalty.


Capital Punishment on the Campaign Trail

Ask students what they know about where the 2016 presidential candidates stand on the death penalty.  Provide students with the information below.


The death penalty is essentially a non-issue among the Republican candidates for president. None of the candidates oppose capital punishment; their positions range from advocating fewer appeals from death row inmates to allowing states to decide the issue.

Among the Democratic candidates there is a divide.

Hillary Clinton

On October 28, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Clinton voiced her concerns about the application of the death penalty, but supported its use in limited instances:

"I do not favor abolishing it, however, because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we’ve seen in most states."

Clinton has been taking liberal positions, perhaps in reaction to the popularity of her main Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. Her stand against the abolition of the death penalty is a departure from this strategy, and places her against the majority of Democrats, who oppose the death penalty.

Bernie Sanders

Senator Sanders' opposition to capital punishment goes back to at least to 1991, when as a congress member, he said on the House floor, "Let us put an end to state murder, let us stop capital punishment." Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Sanders stood by his abolitionist stand:

"We are all shocked and disgusted by some of the horrific murders that we see in this country, seemingly every week. And that is precisely why we should abolish the death penalty. At a time of rampant violence and murder, the state should not be part of that process." 

Martin O'Malley

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley is still in the race for the Democratic nomination, though he is polling at only about 1 or 2%. As governor, O'Malley persuaded Maryland's state legislature to end capital punishment in the state. In 2013, he signed the law, and also commuted the sentences of the state’s death row prisoners.



For Discussion

Senator Bernie Sanders frequently compares the U.S. to other developed countries to make his points. (For example "The United States of America is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers some form of paid family leave, paid sick time or paid vacation time.") The United States is the only member of the G7 (most developed) countries that still executes people. The U.S. ranks with the top five of capital punishment countries, along with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Ask students:

  1. Does it matter how the U.S. compares to other countries on the death penalty - or other issues? Why or why not? Do Americans care if we have the death penalty and other developed nations do not? Does it harm our reputation worldwide?
  2. Why do you think the U.S. still has capital punishment? Is it politics? Religion? Popular opinion? Tradition?
  3. "Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders." - Albert Camus, French philosopher
    What is your reaction to this quotation?


Class Activity

Have the students vote for the best reasons to support capital punishment and the best reasons to oppose it. Ask students to support their opinions.

Reasons to oppose capital punishment:

  • The justice system is imperfect: innocent people may be executed.
  • The U.S. depends on its human right image in the world; capital punishment tarnishes that image.
  • Killing is wrong, even (or perhaps especially) when the state is doing the killing.
  • Executions violate the Eight Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."
  • Humans are capable of rehabilitation and redemption.
  • People of color are far more likely to receive the death penalty even for similar crimes; the application of the death penalty is racist.

Reasons to favor capital punishment:

  • People will think twice about committing murder if they know they can receive the death penalty for the crime.
  • The only way for the victims to receive closure is for the murderer to be executed.
  • Punishment for crimes should be proportional to the crime.
  • The only way to insure that a killer will not kill again is capital punishment.
  • The Bible explicitly condones capital punishment.

Research Activity

Perhaps the most common argument in favor of capital punishment is that it will deter people from committing murder. The idea is that if a person knows that the punishment for a crime could be death, they are less likely to commit that crime.

Ask students to research the question of deterrence with the following questions in mind:

  • Is the source basing the conclusion on opinion or bias, or on research?
  • Is there disagreement among researchers?
  • Is there now a consensus or near consensus among social scientists on the question, or is there broad disagreement?

Afterwards, conduct a class discussion about the issue in which students answer the questions and cite their evidence.