Death penalty: What is it? What do we think about it?

September 27, 2011

  In the wake of the execution of Troy Davis on September 21, students consider the death penalty through a web, a social barometer activity, readings and videos.

To the teacher:

In late September 2011, the death penalty dominated news headlines. The stories mostly revolved around the case of Troy Davis, a 42-year old African American man who was convicted of killing a white off-duty police officer in Savannah, Georgia, over 20 years ago. Protests against the death penalty were held across the US and the debate over his guilt captured the attention of thousands internationally as well. Over the years Troy Davis's case has helped fuel the global movement to end the death penalty.

After three earlier stays of execution, Troy Davis lost a clemency vote taken by the Georgia Parole Board on September 20, 2011. The following day, he was put to death by lethal injection. Two other men were executed that week as well, Lawrence Brewer and Derrick Mason. Their stories barely made the news, perhaps because their cases did not raise the level kind of doubt that Troy Davis' case has.

For more information on the Troy Davis case, see the New York Times' reference page on the subject or visit the websites of Amnesty International or the American Civil Liberties Union (both opposed to the death penalty). Please also see a previous TeachableMoment lesson on the death penalty.



Students will:

  • Share what they've heard about the Troy Davis case in the news
  • Share their associations with the "death penalty" and/or "capital punishment"
  • Come up with a definition for the death penalty/capital punishment
  • Share different perspectives and opinions on the death penalty
  • Look at facts about the death penalty

Social and Emotional Skills:

  • Active listening to potentially opposing views
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Critical thinking skills

Materials Needed:

  • Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Chart paper, markers and tape
  • Two Signs, one that reads "STRONGLY AGREE" and one that reads "STRONGLY DISAGREE"
  • Internet connection to access homework assignment



(5 minutes)

Explain that in today's class you'll be considering the death penalty. Ask students to share one thing they might have heard about the Troy Davis case in the news.


Capital Punishment/Death Penalty Web

(10 min)

Ask students to brainstorm one-word associations with CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (also known as the DEATH PENALTY) and record their ideas graphically on a web chart.

Making webs can stimulate creative thinking and allows for different voices and perspectives to be raised. Remember in a brainstorm there are no wrong or right answers and all (appropriate) responses should be charted.

To make a web, write the core word or phrase, in this case CAPITAL PUNISHMENT and/or DEATH PENALTY in the center of the board, or on chart paper, and circle it. Chart student associations and connect them to the core idea by drawing lines or spokes radiating out from the center. Related ideas can be grouped together.

Continue the brainstorm while energy is high. If you need to, you can prompt students by asking questions such as, What feelings do you associate with the death penalty? When you've finished charting, discuss the web by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the web?
  • Are there generalizations we might make about what's on the web?

Next ask if anyone would like to come up with a definition for "capital punishment" and/or the "death penalty"?

Definition of "capital punishment" from
n. execution (death) for a capital offense. .....

Means of capital punishment used in the United States include lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad. All capital offenses require automatic appeals, which means that approximately 2,500 men and women are presently on "death row" awaiting their appeals or death.

Definition of "capital offense" from
n. any criminal charge which is punishable by the death penalty, called "capital" since the defendant could lose his/her head (Latin for caput).

Crimes punishable by death vary from state to state and country to country. [In the U.S.] these offenses may include first degree murder (premeditated), murder with special circumstances...., and rape with additional bodily harm, and the federal crime of treason....

Explain that in the U.S., 34 states have the death penalty and 16 do not.

Tell students that in the next activity, you'll be exploring student opinions surrounding the death penalty through an activity called Social Barometer. 


Social Barometer on the Death Penalty 

(35 min)

In this activity you will ask students to respond to a series of statements by placing themselves along a continuum that goes from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Although people often think that things are either right or wrong, good or bad, there is frequently a range of opinions in between. Because we all have different experiences and often have been given different information, opinions tend to vary greatly.

Post a sign saying "STRONGLY AGREE" at one end of the room and another saying "STRONGLY DISAGREE" at the other. Ask students to place themselves on the continuum between the two signs depending on the degree they agree or disagree with a statement you will read to them. Somewhere in the middle of the room is "neutral" or "don't know." Encourage the students to "take a stand" and not be in the middle of the room too often. Stress that you are asking for opinions; there are no wrong or right responses to the statements.

After you've read a statement from the list below and the students have moved to points on the continuum that represents their opinion, pick a student to explain why s/he chose that spot. After the student has given an explanation, have him or her ask a student with a different rationale to explain the choice s/he made. Remember that there is often a range of explanations both within the AGREE and DISAGREE "camps" as well as between them. Also remind students that for the sake of time and keeping interest in the activity, they should avoid repeating reasons that have already been raised.

For each of the statements, have several students provide a rationale for where they are standing. Once students have shared a range of opinions, ask if anyone, based on what they just heard, would like to change where they are standing. If students do change their position, you might want to ask them to explain what made them change their minds.

When this process is complete, go on to another statement. Use as many of the statements as makes sense in the time you have available.

Possible statements:

  • People who commit crimes should be punished.
  • The death penalty is appropriate punishment for murder.
  • The death penalty is cruel and inhumane.
  • Getting rid of the death penalty is a good idea to ensure that we don't execute those who are innocent.
  • The death penalty provides a victim's family and friends with closure from many years of suffering and emotional strain.
  • The Biblical commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' should apply across the board for governments as well as individuals.
  • The death penalty deters or prevents future murders. 
  • Society should not have to spend money year after year to keep a murderer incarcerated for life.


(5 min)

Returning to the web from earlier in the lesson, ask students if there are any other words they'd like to add.



Ask students to further consider the death penalty issue and/or the case of Troy Davis by assigning them to read/watch one of the following:

Read the Death Penalty Information Center's Fact Sheet about the death penalty in the U.S. (

Watch the following video clip "I Am Troy Davis" by Davis's defenders at: or read the poem Appeal (below).

Watch the trailer and (if students are really interested) a four-part video clip series (around 30 minutes total) by Amnesty International called "A Life in the Balance: Examining the Troy Davis Case":

Based on the information in these various materials, ask your students to discuss some or all of the following questions:

Fact Sheet:

  • Studying the Death Penalty Information Center Fact Sheet, what facts stood out for you about the death penalty in the United States? 
  • Was there anything that surprised you?
  • What did the materials you studied say about the role of race in capital crimes?
  • What did you learn about the death penalty as a deterrent to murder?
  • What did the materials you studied say about the impact of capital punishment on prison staff/wardens? What are your thoughts about that?

Troy Davis materials:

  • What did you learn about the case of Troy Davis?
  • Is there certainty about his innocence? 
  • Is there certainty about his guilt?
  • Why do you think there has been so much attention paid to the case of Troy Davis?
  • Do you think the other two men executed at the same time as Davis deserves to be in the news too? Why? Why not?
  • What do you think about the statement "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind? (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • What do you think about the statement "The level of civilization of a country can be measured by the way it treats its prisoners"? (Winston Churchill)



- For Troy Davis on death row, Georgia (USA)

What can I say,
the man 
will be killed, years ago
the state began preparations,
not the first time
knew what to do
took many a life
before him,
took doctors -- 
(until they refused)
to measure the dose
for lethal injection,
took Governors
(statesmen to explain the Why),
took willing guards
(many unwilling)
in too many prisons --
to make a captive
suitable for sacrifice

What can I say
that has not been said,
argued in stately manners
at rally, legal briefs in courtrooms
before judges and executioners

What can I say, 
the lethal authority of System
makes facts into strangers,
kills men in warfare and execution,
starves families in ghetto-liberty

What can I say,
How often silence is like a death -- not Death:
- Let the man live!
- Halt his sacrifice!

(Laurence H. Ebersole, 10/24/08)


This lesson was written for by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: