College class discussion shows the complexity of death penalty issue

Jo Wandel's Metro Community College class discusses the death penalty, with NET audio engineer Jeff Smith recording. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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September 30, 2016 - 6:45am

This fall Nebraska voters will decide whether the state will have the death penalty. It’s a complex, emotional topic, as NET News discovered sitting in on a college class discussion for NET’s "Classroom Conversations" project.

Jo Wandel welcomed her seven students, then launched into the topic of the day: the death penalty. It wasn’t the first time her Intro to Law class at the South Omaha campus of Metropolitan Community College had dealt with the subject. Months earlier students in this class researched a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a minor sentenced to death. But on this day, with the class nearing an end, Wandel guided her students through a diverse, often impassioned discussion of the issue.

For “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote,” NET News brought advocates from each side of the issue to answer questions from students at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff,Northeast Community College in Norfolk and Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. These lively discussions are the foundation of a 30-minute television program and additional web content you can find on the project web site.


MCC instructor Jo Wandel (All photos by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Wandel's Intro to Law class at Metro Community College.

“When do you think the death penalty might be appropriate, or do you think it's appropriate at all?” Wandell started.

“The only question I have in my mind is for an accused who is so beyond what might be rehabilitative potential, and that the crimes that they have committed are so heinous that it begs one to wonder what role could this person serve in society at this point,” student Suzanne Barrett said. “At the same time, I'm opposed to the death penalty, so that's where I'm conflicted. For example, a serial killer.”

“If somebody was a serial killer, could you then agree with the death penalty as appropriate punishment?” Wandell asked.

“I don't know, I don't know,” Barrett responded.

“I could, and I don't want my tax paying dollars wasted on putting them in prison for the rest of their life,” said student Shanda Young. “I think it's the ultimate punishment. In our society, I think it gives, there's more reason to keep people in line.”

“Also, when you look at the idea of retribution, that's one of the reasons for the death penalty, it conflicts with what we as a society try and teach our children, which is "don't try and get even. Don't seek revenge, that's not the way," Barrett added. “Yet this is what we do with our worst criminals. We put them to death.”

“Back to what Suzanne was saying about in society, what we teach,” Young said. “I could be wrong, but I thought it was the Bible that said, ‘an eye for an eye.’”

“We're paying for them sitting in there, and they get a free life,” student Jennifer Elkins said. “They don't ever have to work, and they have a roof over their house, and we're feeding them and everything. They're not really being punished for their crime. I think however they did that to that person, they ought to be treated the same way back.”

“I'm for it in one way, if it wouldn't take so long,” student Crystal Ludwig said, “and then I'm against it, like in the 17- and the 18-year-olds, depending on their age, because I know their mentality might not be 100 percent where it's supposed to be.”

“Death doesn't cure death,” said student Jacob Dawson. “You can't have two wrongs to make a right. You can't say, ‘I'm upset that you're a killer,’ and kill a killer, and then think you aren't a killer.”

“I'm not killing them personally,” Young said.

“You absolutely are,” Dawson responded. “When you say that you're voting to have the death penalty, you are in turn killing a person. You are now a killer.”

“Do you think it's important to go and vote on this issue or not?” Wandel asked her class. “How many of you here are going to vote on it?”

“I think you should really look into it before you vote,” student Melissa McBride said. “Look at everything, like the long-term effects, not just vote on it just because of something you've seen on the news, or Facebook, or things like that. You should really know what you're voting for.”

“That's the problem, though,” student Jenna Strachota added, “because not everyone will research it. They’re going to be, just from their own personal experience.”

Wandel asked Strachota “you think they're going to be led by social media, for example, in making a decision?” “Sure,” she answered.

Wandel and students discussed the death penalty for an hour, before we jumped in with one final question: “What do you hope people are thinking about the most as they're trying to come to terms with what they think about this issue?”

“I think that they need to look at both sides of the argument,” Strachota said. “Also, there (are) a lot of people, me being one of them…I'd heard in the past that it cost us a lot of money to keep prisoners in jail instead of executing them. But now doing research I see that that's not really the case.”

"I think you need to look at the long-term effect, how it affects society, what you think is right in your mind according to your beliefs,” McBride said, “but also do the research, and not just look to media, necessarily, and look at the facts.”

“I think when we talk about the death penalty, we need to stop talking about the death row inmate and we need to start talking about everybody else that's surrounding it,” Dawson said. “I think that's one of the most important things that we stop talking about this one, center person, and realize that there's so many other families that are being affected.”

“Maybe as a guiding principle is how do we want to evolve as a society?” Barrett said. “What do we set as our moral goal as what we aspire to, and what we hope to teach people who are going to be the future?”

“I think one needs to study the pros and cons, and look at what's good in one way and bad in another, and decide, ‘Is it worth it? Is the death penalty just for extreme criminals?’” Elkins said. “Then, again, look at it, if there is any rehabilitation. It's kind of a toss-up, when you think about it.”

And for these Metro Community College students and other Nebraskans, that chance to decide begins Oct. 3 with early voting leading up to Election Day on Nov. 8.



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