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  Death penalty debate
Updated 12 March 2002, 10.38
Lethal injection table

Citizenship 11-14/KS3/Levels E&F
Human rights

Campaigners asked the governor of Georgia to reduce Tracy Housel's death sentence to life imprisonment. Housel was a British national.

Consider Housel's case, then debate the issues.

Learning aims

  • Human rights argument
  • Deterrence argument
  • Execution of the innocent argument
1) Icebreaker

Read students this information on Tracy Housel

An open and shut case?

Evidence was presented at his trial that during a two-month period in early 1985 Tracy Housel killed a man in Texas, stabbed a man in Iowa, raped a woman in New Jersey, and, finally, killed a woman in Georgia, for whose murder he received the death sentence.

Housel pleaded guilty at the trial. The surviving Iowa and New Jersey victims gave evidence against him, as did police officers from Texas, Florida and Georgia.

Or is there more to it?
At trial Tracy was represented by a single court-appointed lawyer just out of law school. The lawyer had never tried a murder case. In later appeal hearings, the lawyer admitted he made no attempt to find out the facts of Tracy's background, or his medical state.

Tracy's background
The jury never learned that Tracy was abused as a child by an alcoholic father. They didn't know that at the time of the murder he suffered a psychotic episode (his brain wasn't working properly). This was due to a medical condition (hypoglycemia). By telling him to plead guilty, his lawyer had deprived him of a possible defence of insanity. If the judge thought he was insane he would have got life in prison, not execution. Had he known the full facts, his lawyer has said, he would never have given Tracy such advice.

Did Tracy deserve the death penalty?
Should he have been treated differently as his brain was not working properly at the time?

2) Main activity

Class debate

Motion: The case of Tracy Housel proves the USA is right to have capital punishment.

The following can be printed to give the debate a formal structure and help students with their arguments.

3) Extension activity
Write a personal statement of your opinions. Pick the five arguments you find most convincing and include them in a report that starts 'I support/I oppose the death penalty because'.

4) Plenary
If they themselves had to administer the lethal injection, how many students would still vote for capital punishment?

If a member of their own family had been murdered, how many students would still vote against the death penalty?

Teachers' Background

  • 109 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

  • 86 countries retain and use the death penalty.

  • In the USA the death penalty is used for murder, and kidnapping if the hostage dies. 683 people were executed in America between 1977 and 2000.

  • The UK abolished the death penalty for murder in 1965.

  • Statement from Amnesty website: 'The death penalty has no place in a modern criminal justice system. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Because all judicial systems make mistakes and because of its irrevocable nature, the death penalty kills innocent individuals who are wrongly convicted. The death penalty brutalises society and breeds contempt for human life.'

  • Poet Hyman Barshay: 'The death penalty is a warning, just like a lighthouse throwing its beams out to sea. We hear about shipwrecks, but we do not hear about the ships the lighthouse guides safely on their way. We do not have proof of the number of ships it saves, but we do not tear the lighthouse down.'

  • In January 2000, George Ryan, Governor of Illinois and a pro-death-penalty Republican, imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after 13 wrongly convicted men were released from Illinois's death row.

  • Two thirds of Americans still support the death penalty - down from a recent peak of 80% in 1994.

  • There are no definitive cases of innocent people having been executed, but 95 people have been released from death row since 1973.

  • If you feel that using the case of Tracy Housel would unfairly sway the debate in favour capital punishment use the links to research the case of Derek Bentley. Bentley was posthumously pardoned and his case links well to the history of abolition in the UK.

For all links and resources click at top right.

More InfoBORDER=0
TeachersWorksheet: Arguments against capital punishment
TeachersWorksheet: Arguments for capital punishment
TeachersHow to hold a debate: Printable


BBC Links
BBC News: Judgement placed at Bentley's grave
BBC News: Blair 'must act' over death row Briton


Web Links
Derek Bentley Page
Tracy Housel: Amnesty International
Note: You will leave CBBC. We are not responsible for other websites.



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