September 18, 2020

Death penalty examined during Constitution Day

The College’s school of Culture and Society and the Pre-Law Advisory Committee hosted a panel discussion on the death penalty for the College’s third annual Constitution Day on Tuesday, Sept. 18.

Each of the three panelists presented a brief lecture before they held a joint discussion and fielded questions from the audience together. The panel consisted of criminology professors Lynn Goedecke and Christopher Totten, and professor of philosophy and religion Melinda Roberts. Professor of political science Daryl Fair moderated the discussion.

The panel marks a shift in how the College recognizes Constitution Day, which federal law mandates all publicly funded educational institutions observe.

“We wanted to be more purposeful (in dealing with) constitutional issues,” Susan Albertine, dean of the School of Culture and Society, said. “We want to make the most of Constitution Day.”

Goedecke detailed the need for continuing discussion and education on the death penalty from the inhumanity of botched lethal injections to the numbers of innocent and exonerated death row inmates.

“People are shocked to hear one person was exonerated who was on death row,” she said. “This doesn’t enter people’s minds.” According to Goedecke, 124 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, and in that same time period, anywhere between seven and 123 innocent people have been executed.

Goedecke also described the strange role medical professionals play in state-sponsored executions. In Florida, she explained, doctors participating in an execution are allowed to hide their identities by wearing purple space suits, even wearing dark goggles under the tinted face shield.

“Tinky Winky in a purple suit is coming after you with a needle,” Goedecke said.

Totten focused on the specific legal nuances, procedures and requirements carried by the death penalty, specifically the standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court. Totten explained it was only a few years ago when the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of mentally insane, mentally challenged and juvenile offenders. When compared to similar limitations imposed by other countries, “It’s somewhat incredulous the United States put those (limitations) in so recently,” Totten said.

As for why the United States has been comparatively slow in enacting those restrictions, Totten suggested that the delay could be a result of our system of government. “Ours is a system of federalism, for better or for worse,” Totten said.

Roberts examined the “connection between morality and how we read the Constitution,” and how “virtually any sequence of words can be read in a variety of ways,” she said. She also stressed the need for judiciaries to look toward moral principles to guide interpretations of the law, and balance them with the principles of democracy.

“The maze of death penalty cases the court will face in the next few years, if they choose to, demands a principled approach,” Roberts said. “We’re tinkering with the machinery of death … We have to weigh a moral principle on one hand and a respect for democracy on the other.”

But she also emphasized the need to explore reasons why voters might support the death penalty.

“We need to understand each other better than we do,” Roberts said. “If it isn’t for the fun of killing another human being, (they) must have their reasons.”

After the panel, which drew an audience of approximately 50 students and faculty members to the New Library Auditorium, Roberts expressed satisfaction at the turnout, but even more pleasure at the level of questions posed by the attendees. “The students’ questions were brilliant,” Roberts said.

New Jersey, a state that hasn’t executed anyone since 1963, currently has 11 inmates on death row.

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