Abolish the Death Penalty

Next Debate Previous Debate
DeathPenalty 398x239 Illustration by Thomas James

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A recent Gallup poll found that Americans are still largely supportive of the death penalty, with 6 in 10 in favor as punishment for murder. Legal in 32 states, it has come under renewed scrutiny in light of several botched executions in 2014. At the heart of the debate are many complicated questions. Within a flawed criminal justice system, is it possible to know every person’s guilt with a sufficient degree of certainty? Does the fear of death reduce crime? Are there race and class biases in sentencing? Are some crimes so heinous in nature that punishment by death is the only appropriate measure, or is capital punishment always immoral? Should we abolish the death penalty?

  • RustTierney 90px


    Diann Rust-Tierney

    Executive Director, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

  • Scheck 90px


    Barry Scheck

    Co-Director, Innocence Project & Prof., Cardozo Law

  • Blecker 90px


    Robert Blecker

    Professor, New York Law School

  • Scheidegger 90px


    Kent Scheidegger

    Legal Director, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

See Results See Full Debate Video Purchase DVD

Read Transcript

Listen to the edited radio broadcast

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to the unedited radio broadcast

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Subscribe to the Podcast
RustTierney 90px

For The Motion

Diann Rust-Tierney

Executive Director, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Diann Rust-Tierney became the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in 2004. With thirty years of experience in public policy and litigation advocacy, she manages the operations of NCADP and directs programs for the organization and its 100 affiliate organizations seeking to change public policy on the death penalty. Previously, Rust-Tierney served as the director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she had also served as chief legislative counsel and associate director of the Washington office. During her tenure at the ACLU, she was the lead advocate on capital punishment on Capitol Hill, coordinating a coalition of national organizations on the issue, and the lead lobbyist on a broad portfolio of issues ranging from criminal justice policy to women’s rights. Prior to joining the staff at the ACLU, she engaged in litigation and public policy advocacy at the National Women’s Law Center.

Learn more

Scheck 90px

For The Motion

Barry Scheck

Co-Director, Innocence Project & Prof., Cardozo Law

Barry Scheck is the co-founder and co-director, with Peter Neufeld, of the Innocence Project and a professor at the Cardozo School of Law. Known for landmark litigation that has set standards for forensic applications of DNA technology, he and Neufeld have shaped the course of case law nationwide, leading to an influential study by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as important state and federal legislation. They coauthored Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted (2000) with Jim Dwyer. Scheck is a commissioner on New York's Forensic Science Review Board, the first vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and a board member of the National Institute of Justice's Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. In addition to the dozens of men exonerated through the Innocence Project, Scheck has represented such notable clients as Hedda Nussbaum, O. J. Simpson, Louise Woodward, and Abner Louima.

Learn more

Blecker 90px

Against The Motion

Robert Blecker

Professor, New York Law School

Robert Blecker is a professor at New York Law School, a nationally known expert on the death penalty, and author of the book, The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice Among the Worst of the Worst.  The subject of the documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, he is also a prominent voice in a dozen other documentaries. After a brief stint as a New York Special Assistant Attorney General prosecuting corruption, he joined New York Law School, where he teaches constitutional history, criminal law, and co-teaches death penalty jurisprudence with leading opponents. The sole keynote speaker supporting the death penalty at major conferences and at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, he was also the lone American advocate at an international conference in Geneva on the death penalty sponsored by Duke University Law School. Frequently appearing in The New York Times, on PBS, CNN, BBC World News, and other major media outlets, and with privileged access to death rows across the country, Blecker is making a documentary chronicling life on death rows and contrasting them with maximum security general population.

Learn more

Scheidegger 90px

Against The Motion

Kent Scheidegger

Legal Director, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

Kent Scheidegger has been the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation since 1986. A nonprofit, public interest law organization, CJLF’s purpose is to assure that people who are guilty of committing crimes receive swift and certain punishment in an orderly and constitutional manner. Scheidegger has written over 150 briefs in U.S. Supreme Court cases. His articles on criminal and constitutional law have been published in law reviews, national legal publications, and congressional reports, and his legal arguments have been cited in the Congressional Record and incorporated in several precedent-setting Supreme Court decisions. He is the past chairman of the Criminal Law and Procedure Practice Group of the Federalist Society and continues to serve on the group’s executive committee. After serving six years in the U.S. Air Force as a nuclear research officer, he took his law degree with distinction from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law.

Learn more

Declared Winner: Against The Motion

Online Voting

Voting Breakdown:

55% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (37% voted FOR twice, 14% voted AGAINST twice, 4% voted UNDECIDED twice). 45% changed their minds (10% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 1% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 3% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 1% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 15% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 15% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

About This Event

Event Photos

PrevNext Arrows
    PrevNext Arrows


    • Comment Link chancescott Friday, 04 March 2016 14:27 posted by chancescott

      it should be banned in all states because it causes a lot of murders

    • Comment Link Don Tuesday, 10 November 2015 14:19 posted by Don

      Consider the questions. Is it possible to know guilt beyond reasonable certainty? No- but it is possible to set those with no doubt in a class that remains open to the death penalty, and shortens the appeal steps.

      Does the fear of death reduce crime? Absolutely. However if the threat is that there is a very small chance that we may execute you in 15 years.... the fear impact is minimal. Imminent and positive are much more powerful than maybe, someday. Some states haven't used their death penalty in 50 years.

      Are their race and class biases? Yes. all human issues have it. That is what appeals are for.

      Are some crimes so heinous in nature that punishment by death is the only appropriate measure?


      The death penalty is only useless or unjust if we make it so.

    • Comment Link kim Friday, 28 August 2015 19:10 posted by kim

      In terms of which side swayed the most undecided people by the end of the debate, the anti-death penalty side won hands down.

    • Comment Link Michael Stoler Thursday, 20 August 2015 20:12 posted by Michael Stoler

      When people use the same kind of meaningless phrases over and over again, like "worst of the worst of the worst," it's hard to take them and their positions seriously intellectually.

    • Comment Link Frank L. Thursday, 04 June 2015 02:33 posted by Frank L.

      I'm a realist and therefore against the death penalty. The for side did an absolutely horrible job, and Scheidegger is a buffoon who wouldn't look out of place in the Fox New lineup of blowhards. I don't think everyone can change, and in a perfect world where the worst offenders scheduled to be executed can all be determined to be guilty beyond any doubt, I would have no problem letting them be executed.

      Rust-Tierney did herself no favours by focusing on socioeconomic and racial factors which are not relevant to the debate. The against side's testosterone-fueled postering is ridiculous, and the few good points they did make, such as treating inmates differently depending on the severity of their crimes, are not relevant to the debate.

    • Comment Link Paul Friday, 29 May 2015 12:32 posted by Paul

      I'm not really understanding what the opposition is attempting to accomplish by having a death penalty. It almost seems as if they're more interested in revenge and payback rather than rehabilitation and best outcomes. They might as well just replace the word 'justice' with 'revenge'. It's a very primitive way of approaching things.

    • Comment Link Keith W Monday, 18 May 2015 18:29 posted by Keith W

      Agree with Brandon below that those for the motion did a terrible job.

      It seems to me that a lot of people (particularly Blecker) confuse justice with revenge.

    • Comment Link NON-American Tuesday, 05 May 2015 10:00 posted by NON-American

      I am not a US citizen. So I make no ultimate claim to tell anyone what to do. I am simply an interested outsider who often listens to US intelligence squared podcasts.

      I have to say... (having lived for long periods in the US) it is when issues like this come up for debate that you begin to realise that the US is generally quite a morally disturbing place. One side offers numerous hard facts to show that the death-penalty is racially discriminatory, geographically contingent and scientifically proven to be a much bigger mass-killer of innocents than any "worst of the worst" killer than their opponents are constantly citing.

      The other side offers hazy unproven emotional arguments that can basically be summarised (in their own words) as revenge (mascarading as absolute justice). They can offer no statistical argument that it is a deterrent - despite repeating that it is over and over. One of them openly advocates for more or less life-long torturing of prisoners in order to satisfy some abstract and insatiable "absolute vengence" that he projects upon us all. Nobody even contradicts him to say that not everyone automatically supports and demands torturing and killing as the only means to justice. The same two advocates have no logical response to the question of why we don't simply return to chopping off people's hands or poking out their eyes as a similar means of achieving justice.

      And yet in the end, after all of this, the audience vote to transfer more of their allegiance to the anti-abolition arguments! Yowzer...

    • Comment Link Brandon Friday, 01 May 2015 19:36 posted by Brandon

      I oppose the death penalty, however, I do not think that Barry Scheck or Diann Rust-Tierney (particularly) did an effective job of advancing the abolitionist position. Perhaps the most glaring omission in their argument, in my opinion, was the gender factor and the likelihood of obtaining a capital conviction based on the gender of the defendant and/or the gender of the victim. I do agree with Rust-Tierney that in America it seems that some lives matter more than others, however, based on the existing evidence (research) it seems it has as much if not more to do with gender than race, which seems to be reinforced by social views involving chivalry and male disposability.

    • Comment Link Russ Tul Friday, 01 May 2015 12:40 posted by Russ Tul

      (a) No murder can be more cold-blooder or premeditated than capital punishment.
      (b) Consequently, it brutlizes the public at large and, by implication, its message is that murder is a socially acceptable act.

    • Comment Link Peter D Thursday, 23 April 2015 14:35 posted by Peter D

      I keep hearing talk of "Justice" as a reason for it, yet conveniently no one defines what they mean by Justice.

      In The Republic, Plato did a pretty effective job of illustrating that justice is a convenient but meaningless word people throw around to mean whatever they want to justify their own subjective sense of revenge.

      I have yet to hear anyone do a better job of arguing for or against Justice.

      While I'm for the Death Penalty in theory, we don't yet have the means to enact it with 100% confidence in the ruling, which makes it little better than a state-sponsored witch hunt.

    • Comment Link Jesse Thursday, 23 April 2015 07:56 posted by Jesse

      This debate was embarrassingly mangled by the proponents of this motion. So, to that end, they deserved to lose by default. Rather than zeroing in on the fundamental crux of the issue, Ms. Rust-Tierney and Mr. Scheck wasted valuable minutes expounding on periferal issues such as race, locale and misappropriation. These are great arguments for why we misapply the death penalty here in the US, but they are quite ineffective when it comes to abolishing capital punishment outright.

      Unfortunately, neither debater bothered to bring up the most valid point available: killing people is an act of barbarity. It is wrong and we should not do it at all in any context. What these executions in fact do is satisfy and reinforce our tribal desires for blood. They are merely punitive and benefit no one. This should have been the focal point of the debate, not our systemic failure to apply the death penalty fairly. That only played into the hand of the opposition, who countered with their expected unsubstantiated rhetoric.

      Pretty sad. I guess, the bad guys won again.

    • Comment Link Ryan Tuesday, 21 April 2015 21:29 posted by Ryan

      Be grateful you yanks are still having this debate. We don't have the death penalty in Canada. Instead we resort to releasing convicted murderers and cannibals into the general public after half a decade.

    • Comment Link Paul K. Monday, 20 April 2015 19:36 posted by Paul K.

      What I heard from Professor Robert Blecker and the "keep the death penalty " side, was that prisoners on death row should be tortured while awaiting their execution.
      We know that prisoners kept in a sensory deprived condition will likely become insane, while becoming more dangerous for guards and other prisoners.
      As a deterrent to other potential criminals, and to raise money, couldn't we have little windows be opened, for a fee, so the public could see the worst of the worst of the worst in throes of torture?

      If exonerated and released victims of the system will certainly not feel kindly towards those who put them there.
      A "so sorry old chap." "Damn near killed you there didn't we. Lucky you, eh what " apology just won't make it right.
      I do favor the death "solution" for any murderer convicted beyond any doubt whatsoever. Even for those with Wealth, with fine Lawyers, the American Posh, a favored race, etc.

      Those found guilty without any doubt whatsoever, no matter how "worst" they are should have a quick painless execution. A BIG dose of Valium and a guillotine, is the most certain and humane solution. We need not care if the criminal feels fear and pain; death is the objective, not the torture. A computer can pull the trip cord so no human need be an executioner

      "Closure" for the killers victims, is a vapory cliche'; "closure is a media invented condition to mean “I'm alright now, I got closure”.
      Anyone who has ever been a victim of a terrible crime will never, never have "closure".

      A final notion of fairness: Should any prosecutor, lawyer, judge, witness or juror be found absolutely guilty of manipulating evidence to find a person guilty of a capital crime, and that person is found guilty, such prosecutor, lawyer, judge, witness or juror shall receive a mandatory death sentence.
      Those who will take a life so callously, must offer their own life as surety.

    • Comment Link James Bernard Friday, 17 April 2015 18:32 posted by James Bernard

      Really non intelligent goofy wording on the "results".
      Isn't the actual motion ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY ?

      Does the pie "chart" not show 54% BLUE ......as in 54% are FOR the motion of "abolish the death penalty".???

      Then why does the headline state "Declared Winner : AGAINST the motion ?........let me guess this website was designed by the same "geniuses" at healthcare dot gov.

    • Comment Link Will Friday, 17 April 2015 17:01 posted by Will

      Opposing the death penalty because of how improperly it is applied is ridiculous. If we're botching executions, FIX IT. If we're convicting too many innocent people, FIX IT. Don't use the fact that one part of our judicial system is messed up as an excuse to mess up another.

      The death penalty is not a deterrent. It is not used to show people killing is wrong. It should be used because to do anything else is dangerous. A crime so heinous that it is (for whatever reason) impossible to rehabilitate the guilty (which by the way was the reason the prison system was created, not as punishment) PRISON should be used to turn criminals into productive members of society. The death penalty should be invoked when that is not possible, in order to prevent the criminal from committing the crime again.

      The fact that our prison system has become a cash cow for people who run prisons and a welfare system for criminals means we should be doing everything we can to turn that around. It doesn't mean we let people who do unspeakable things to members of our society the opportunity to escape and do those things to another member of our society, EVEN other prisoners.

      FIX what's wrong... Don't break one thing because you THINK it will fix another thing. You're most likely wrong.

    • Comment Link Daniel Hoffman Friday, 17 April 2015 10:43 posted by Daniel Hoffman

      No person in their right mind would ever kill another person. A killer is either criminally insane, mentally ill in the classical sense, or the crime was one os passion meaning temporary insanity. Healthy minded people don't kill.
      Therefore any killer is by definition insane. Why should we as a society kill an insane person?

    • Comment Link Jon Thursday, 16 April 2015 20:51 posted by Jon

      1. It is applied very unevenly

      2.DNA testing has exonerated many death row inmates.

      3.Too many prosecutors don't really care if the prisoner is guilty or not as long as their conviction rate is maintained.

      4. Many law enforcement officers lie on the witness stand.

      5 It is so bad that it has been proven that ugly people receive harsher sentences.

      6. About half our judges are elected and cater to the loudest.

      7. Related to #2. Eye witness testimony is often wrong. All law enforcement people know this.

    • Comment Link Dudley Sharp Thursday, 16 April 2015 13:07 posted by Dudley Sharp

      Bruce K:

      A very thoughtful post from you. Thank you.

      The death penalty is, very likely, implemented much better than you believe.

      Please review:

      The Death Penalty: Fair and Just

    • Comment Link Dudley Sharp Thursday, 16 April 2015 13:04 posted by Dudley Sharp


      The death penalty is a just sanction and it deters some potential murderers.

      All sanctions deter some. The evidence that the death penalty deters some is overwhelming. The evidence that the death penalty and other sanctions deter none does not exist.

      Please review:

      The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

    Leave a comment

    Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.