Using Engagement and Building Empathy in a Death Penalty Course

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I’m going to write here about a couple of specific projects I use in my Death Penalty class to engage students in both direct and indirect interaction with the realities of the death penalty as well as to develop a subjective understanding of these realities (i.e. to empathize). But let me start by giving a little context about how I approach teaching about the death penalty.

From the perspective of teaching, I’ve always looked at the death penalty as a kind of magnifying glass on the criminal justice system. The operations, legal processes, issues and problems inherent in the criminal justice system are magnified when the case is a capital one and the potential punishment is death. As the Supreme Court has proclaimed “death is different.” Indeed, when death is the result of a crime and is the possible punishment prescribed, senses are heightened, processes are in overdrive, and legal battles become matters of life and death. Issues revolving around race, inequality, justice, due process, misconduct, factual errors and Constitutional rights—all inherently intertwined with the criminal justice system, in general—become writ large in capital cases. In this way, teaching about the death penalty is an opportunity to shed light on the major issues and problems related to criminal justice, bringing them into sharp relief.

I’ve also found that the death penalty is fundamentally more of an emotional topic than it is an intellectual one. It’s always rung a little hollow to me when the death penalty is discussed or considered from a dispassionately detached perspective. This is not to degrade those who wish to look at the death penalty in this way or to even say that more dispassionate academic treatment of the death penalty is fruitless or lacks value. It’s just to say that, to me, this rings a little hollow and fails to reconcile with the horror, pain, loss, tragedy and sorrow that pervades the death penalty through and through. And, in my experience, an attempt to get students to understand the death penalty only from an intellectual perspective fails to really stimulate and educate them. Instead, I have found that students seem to truly learn about the death penalty when they are able to engage the subjective perspectives and emotions of those most directly impacted by its use and the realities surrounding it.

Now, going back to my metaphor of the death penalty as magnifying glass, I suppose the argument can be extended that engaging the subjective is essential to understanding crime and criminal justice more broadly and in all its manifestations. If we want to learn about criminals, we should engage with criminals (or, at the very least, with their words and perspectives). If we want to know about criminal justice, we should engage with those who directly experience its apparatuses.

It is in this spirit that I share the two major projects I assign in my death penalty course. The first is what I refer to as a “dialogue project” in which students correspond with someone directly associated with or impacted by the death penalty. The second is a digital storytelling/visual media assignment in which students develop a brief video built around the last statement of a condemned inmate (with the requirement that it include a personal recitation of the last statement by the student). Following the assignment description and guidelines for the former is a selection of student comments about the project. Included with a short description of the latter is the rubric I use for grading (a difficult task for a project like this) and a link to the video created by one of the students in this course, shown below.


Both of these class projects seem to have a significant impact on many students and, I believe, accomplish my objective of having students engage more directly with the realities of the death penalty. They humanize the individuals who are enmeshed with its machinations and who are inevitably impacted by its brand of “justice.” Even if for only a brief time, students must subjectively embrace the realities and experiences endemic to capital punishment and empathize with the individuals at its heart. Given that a good portion of the students write to death row inmates for the dialogue project and that the last statement project solely revolves around the condemned, getting students to empathize is no small task and does generate some discomfort for some. In my view, this makes the attempt all the more important and any small success all the more satisfying.

Student Reactions (more are included in the dialogue assignment file)

Student 9, Female, Dialogue with Death Row Inmate

He is scheduled to be the third person executed [this year]. I have been struggling with this information since I received his last letter…I still have yet to respond. I have drafted a few attempts at letters but I honestly do not know what to say to this man anymore. He has family, he has friends, but he has also taken the time out of the last months of his life to spend time writing to me. I feel I am betraying him by not writing back quickly and communicating with him, which is the only thing that he has asked for since we began writing at the beginning of the semester. I know that I am being very selfish, but I, for the life of me, do not know what to tell him. I cannot give him any advice, any suggestions, or any comfort. I do not feel like it would be at all appropriate for me to say goodbye. But I do not know what else to say.

Student 12, Female, Dialogue with Death Row Inmate’s Family Member (Mother)

I think you can learn more about a topic such as the death penalty from projects like this and from going to death row than you can from reading books and articles. From…conversing with [Mother] I have learned an incalculable amount.



I would love to engage in any level of dialogue about these projects or my perspective, in general and welcome any feedback, insight, suggestions, criticism or request for more information and detail. Please comment here if you desire, or feel free to contact me via email or Facebook.

Scott Vollum, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Minnesota Duluth


  1. I taught a Death Penalty in America class in the spring semester of 2015 for the first time. One of the things I struggled with was how to facilitate students’ understanding of the experience of those who’d been sentenced to death and the many failings of the CJ system along the way to the ultimate punishment. I tried having them read The Wrong Carlos and Gruesome Spectacles along with a couple of texts authored by Bohm, but reading did not impact them — especially since they rarely read.
    Your ideas seem to make a difference. I have a question regarding having students correspond with death row prisoners. Were you required to go through the IRB at your institution? Or is this not regarded as research? Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It definitely will help me the next time I teach this class.

    • Sorry for the really, really late reply…I just hadn’t seen this until I came here to get the link to send to someone.

      I don’t go through the IRB and make explicitly clear to students that this is not research and is not to be presented as such. It is a class exercise that involves conversation/dialogue between adults. Now, if I or one of my students wanted to analyze the content of those conversations we’d have to go back to the IRB to get permission to do so.

      Hope that helps!

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