This case study was written by Minzee Kim, a Sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.  Minzee suggests that the activity be used with “Coping with Innocence After Death Row” by Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook (Contexts, Fall 2008).

Factual background: In two separate incidents in July 1984, a male assailant broke into an apartment, severed phone wires, sexually assaulted a woman, and searched through her belongings, taking money and other items.

On August 1, 1984, Ronald Cotton was arrested for the rapes. In January 1985, Cotton was convicted by a jury of one count of rape and one count of burglary. In a second trial in November 1987, Cotton was convicted of both rapes and two counts of burglary. A County Superior Court sentenced Cotton to life plus 54 years.

Prosecutor’s evidence at trial: Cotton’s alibi was supported by family members. The jury was not allowed to hear evidence that the second victim failed to pick Cotton out of either a photo array or a police lineup. The prosecution based its case on several points:

· A photo identification was made by one of the victims.

· A police lineup identification was made by one of the victims.

· A flashlight in Cotton’s home resembled the one used by the assailant.

· Rubber from Cotton’s tennis shoe was consistent with rubber found at one of the crime scenes.

Post-conviction challenges: Cotton’s attorney filed an appeal. The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the conviction because the second victim had picked another man out of the lineup and the trial court did not allow this evidence to be heard by the jury.

In November 1987, Cotton was retried for both rapes. The second victim had decided that Cotton was the assailant. Before the second trial, a man in prison who had been convicted for crimes similar to these assaults stated to another inmate that he had committed Cotton’s crimes. The superior court judge refused to allow this information into evidence, and Cotton was convicted of both rapes and sentenced to life.

The next year Cotton’s appellate defender filed a brief that did not argue the failure to admit the second suspect’s confession. The conviction was affirmed. In 1994, two new lawyers, at the request of the chief appellate defender, took over Cotton’s defense. They filed a motion for appropriate relief on the grounds of inadequate appeal counsel. They also filed a motion for DNA testing that was granted in October 1994. In the spring of 1995, the Burlington Police Department turned over all evidence that contained the assailant’s semen for DNA testing.

DNA results: The samples from one victim were too deteriorated to be conclusive, but the samples from the other victim’s vaginal swab and underwear were submitted to PCR testing and showed no match to Cotton. At the defense attorneys’ request, the results were sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database containing the DNA patterns of convicted, violent felons in North Carolina prisons. The State’s database showed a match with the convict who had earlier confessed to the crime.

Conclusion: After Cotton’s attorneys received the DNA test results in May 1995, they contacted the district attorney, who joined the defense attorneys in the motion to dismiss the charges. On June 30, 1995, Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. In July 1995, the governor of North Carolina officially pardoned Cotton, making him eligible for $5,000 compensation from the State. Cotton had served ten and one-half years of his sentence.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Cotton’s wrongful conviction could have been prevented? In what stages of the investigation and trial? How?
  2. Do you think the use of DNA evidence can prevent wrongful conviction? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think Cotton should receive any monetary compensation from the state? Why or why not?
  4. If you are in favor of monetary compensation, what would be a reasonable amount of compensation?
  5. Does Cotton deserve any non-monetary compensation (e.g. formal apology from the victim who mistakenly identified him as the offender)?

Here is a case study that you can use before reading “Consumers with a Conscience: Will They Pay More?”  by Howard Kimeldorf, Rachel Meyer, Monica Prasad, and Ian Robinson (Contexts,  Winter 2006). 

As a University of Pleasantville Board Member, Mike has a large decision ahead of him.  Two years ago, his university signed a 5-year contract with Soda Cola.  The university only sells and serves Soda Cola brand beverages on campus, and in return the university receives financial support from Soda Cola for research, new buildings, and student activities.

However, a group of several hundred students on campus have prepared a petition that asks the university to switch soda venders on the basis of alleged human rights violations by Soda Cola in other countries.  In some countries, Soda Cola companies have been accused of having unsafe working conditions.  In other countries, Soda Cola has also been accused of damaging the environment and contributing to pollution in rivers that people rely on for drinking water. 

While Mike understands these students’ concerns, he also has to consider his obligations to the university.  Times are tough, and the money the university receives from Soda Cola goes toward education and research.  Furthermore, he wonders if other soda vendors have better human rights records. 

Either way, the Board of Directors of the university will be reviewing the petition; and Mike will have to express his opinion on whether or not the university should continue business with Soda Cola. 

 Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were Mike, what would you suggest that the Board do?
  2. If the university ends their contract with Soda Cola, they will lose a substantial amount of research and education funding from the company. Is it worth it?
  3. Do Soda Cola consumers have the right to ask the company to investigate their practices?

This case study was written by Jasmine Harris LaMothe, a sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.  It should be paired with “Do Video Games Kill?” by Karen Sternheim (Contexts Fall 2006).  As always, here is the pdf as well. 

A masked 18-year-old man stormed Mayberry High School on last Monday in the North Carolina town of Mayberry, killing 14 and wounding as many as 57 people before killing himself. You were in class when the barrage of gunfire began and luckily escaped unharmed because your teacher locked the door in your windowless classroom before the gunman tried to enter. A few of your friends, including your best friend and neighbor, were among the 14 killed when the gunman opened fire on the students eating lunch in the cafeteria.

The young man, identified only as Robert B., was known to authorities and due in court on Tuesday for weapons violations, local police said. According to media reports, he had a fondness for war simulation and computer games. You can personally attest to this as you have had numerous conversations with Robert over the past year regarding your common love for war-themed video games. In fact, you’ve even been to his house to play and never noticed anything strange.  In fact, Robert was pretty well liked among his peers.

The autopsy report indicated high levels of illegal narcotics in Robert’s system. The school guidance counselor reported that Robert had been having difficulty with his parents’ recent divorce but never exhibited behavior to cause concern that he might harm himself or others.  He often talked about his video game play, but he never talked about it in way that seemed obsessive or out of touch with reality. All-in-all, this outburst of violence came as a complete shock. 

The families of the victims have filed a class action suit against the video game company that manufactures the games Robert (and you) played and have personally requested that you testify against the company in a court of law to highlight the excessive violence of the games and the negative impact they may have on already emotionally or mentally fragile youth. The families are hoping this lawsuit will result in a hefty monetary penalty but also a potential state or nationwide ban on games that simulate gratuitous killing.

  1. Would you testify against the video game manufacturer? If so, what would you say?
  2. Should video game manufacturers shoulder some of the blame when youths commit violent attacks that mirror those from their games?
  3. How has the media shaped public opinion on violent video games?
  4. Is this public opinion warranted? Why or why not?

Here is a learning activity that can be used with The Scarcity Fallacy, by Stephen J. Scanlan, J. Craig Jenkins, and Lindsey Petersen (Contexts, Winter 2010).  Click on the links to obtain a pdf of the learning activity or to read “The Scarcity Fallacy” online through Contexts.

1. How many people live on less than $2 a day?

a. 2.5 billion
b. 2.7 billion
c. 3 billion
d. 3.2 billion

2. What percentage of the people who live in extreme poverty are women?

a. 50
b. 60
c. 70
d. 80

3. Someone dies from starvation every ______ seconds.

4. Approximately how many people do not have access to safe drinking water?

a. 100 million
b. 500 million
c. 750 million
d. 1 billion

5. How many people are hungry every day?

a. 200 million
b. 600 million
c. 800 million
d. 900 million

6. _________people lack access to basic healthcare.

7. How many children die from malnutrition before their 5th birthday every year?

a. 3 million
b. 4 million
c. 5 million
d. 6 million

8. A woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth every _______

a. 1 minute
b. 2 minutes
c. 3 minutes
d. 4 minutes

9. How many people die from malaria each year? _________

10. Approximately _______ people are homeless.

a. 50 million
b. 75 million
c. 100 million
d. 125 million

Answer Key:

1. B
2. C
3. 3.6
4. D
5. C
6. 1.3 billion
7. D
8. A
9. 3 million
10. C

All answers can be found at the UN Millenium Project website.  See the websites of the following organizations for more information: UN Development Program, World Bank, UNIFEM, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Here’s a case study that accompanys Randy Stoecker’s “Community Organizing and Social Change” in Contexts, Winter 2009.  It could be used before or after reading the article.  Click here for the pdf.

Laura Delgado faces a dilemma.  As a community organizer for a progressive advocacy group called the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) in San Diego, California, Laura has spent the last two years leading a campaign to win a living wage ordinance for the city of San Diego.   It has been a tough fight, but Laura believes that victory may be within sight.  A pivotal city council meeting is taking place next week.  Hundreds of living wage activists will pack the city council’s chambers, and community leaders, clergy members, and students will speak to encourage council members to vote for the ordinance.  

Laura is convinced that a low-wage worker who would benefit from a living wage must speak as well; living wage advocates need to put a human face on the issue in order to win.  Luckily, in the past few months, Laura has gotten to know Sarah Brown, an attendant for a city public restroom downtown.  Sarah has a compelling story, and Laura knows that she would do a great job speaking in front of the city council.  But for Sarah to take such a public position may entail some risk; Sarah’s employer could be upset, or even fire Sarah, if he finds out that she is lobbying for a living wage ordinance.  Should Laura encourage Sarah to speak?  

Sarah Brown is an attendant at a street-level public restroom just around the corner from the city council building.  Sarah – a grandmother with a shy smile and a gracious manner – spends almost forty hours a week there, cleaning toilets, mopping floors, restocking toilet paper, and buzzing people in and out from a tiny stall squeezed in between the men’s and women’s rooms.  Because she doesn’t make enough from her full time job to support her family, she works an additional 25 hours a week at a McDonald’s.  Both jobs pay minimum wage and provide no benefits.  Even with two jobs, it is a constant struggle for Sarah to make ends meet.  “Each month,” Sarah told Laura, “I worry that I will not be able to pay my rent or feed my grandson.  Sometimes he cries because there is not enough to eat.”

 Laura knows that, in order for CPI to win a living wage ordinance and improve the lives of thousands of city workers, including Sarah, a worker who would benefit from a living wage must speak at the city council meeting.  Half-measures, like video-taping a worker but obscuring her identity, just won’t do.  But for a worker to speak in public will entail some risk.  Laura knows that in union organizing campaigns, one out of four worker activists is fired, illegally, because they are trying to form a union.  The stakes are equally high in this case.  What should Laura do?


  1. Should Laura ask Sarah to speak at the city council meeting?  Whether you answer yes or no, how do you arrive at your conclusion?
  2. Imagine that Laura asks Sarah to speak.  Sarah responds that she wants to do so because she believes in the importance of a living wage.  But she tells Laura that she is afraid of losing her job if her employer finds out that she spoke at the meeting.  What should Laura tell her?
  3. Imagine that Laura also needs to recruit a pastor from an affluent congregation in the suburbs to speak at the meeting.  The pastor wants to do so, but is concerned that his conservative congregation will be upset about his activism; perhaps he could even lose his job.  How would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change, if at all, in this case? 
  4. Imagine that the worker Sarah needs to ask to speak happens to be undocumented.  In this case, the worker could potentially not only lose his or her job, but also be deported.  How would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change, if at all, in this case?


This is a case study that could accompany any discussion on rights and cultural relativism.  For example, it could be paired with any article in Contexts that deals with religion, culture, etc.  Another option would be to use it with “Keyword: Culture” by Joseph R. Gusfield in Contexts, Winter 2006.  Click here for a pdf version of the case study.

Kelly is discussing women’s rights with a group of her friends before their International Law class starts.  As an avid feminist, she prides herself in her belief that women and men are equal.  She says to her friends, “I feel sorry for the women that feel like they have to submit themselves to men.  I mean, look at Muslim women.  Why should they have to cover their heads or faces?  They are beautiful.  It’s a violation of their human rights to be treated as inferior to men.  Why should they have to wear one if men don’t have to?” 

Several of Kelly’s friends look uncomfortable and motion with their eyes to the right of Kelly.  She glances over and realizes that Salma, who is originally from Kenya, is sitting next to them wearing her hijab.  Thankfully for Kelly, their professor enters the room and begins the day’s lecture. 

 After class, Salma approaches Kelly as she putting her things away in her backpack.  Salma explains that she heard Kelly’s conversation and that she wears a hijab because in her culture it is empowering.  To her, a hijab is a sign of her submission to Allah.  It also makes it so that men judge her by her personality rather than by her appearance.  Surprised, Kelly apologizes.  Yet, she is confused.  She thought hijabs were degrading and a violation of women’s fundamental rights.  How could two people view women’s right so differently?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with Kelly that hijabs violate women’s rights?
  2. If human rights are universal, how do we account for cultural differences?
  3. Are human rights and cultural relativism fundamentally incompatible?  Which one is more important? 
  4. Who has the power to decide how human rights are interpreted? 

This is the first in a series of posts that offers learning activities to accompany Contexts feature articles. This first post is designed to be used with Robert J. Sampson’s Winter 2008 article Rethinking Crime and Immigration,which can be read for free online.

This learning activity would ideally be used before the students read the article.

Take your best guess at the following questions regarding recent immigration to the United States:

1. True or False:  Immigration is associated with lower crime rates in most urban, disadvantaged neighborhoods.

2. Where are most recent immigrants in the U.S. originally from?  You can choose more than one.

a. The Middle East
b. Africa
c. Asia
d. Latin America

3. What percentage of the world’s immigrants come to the United States?

a. 40%
b. 25%
c. 10%
d. Less than 1%

4. What is the most common reason that people emigrate to the U.S.?

a. Employment
b. Escape persecution or harsh conditions (seeking refugee or asylum status)
c. To join a family member
d. Fleeing criminal charges

5. True or False:  Most immigrants come to the U.S. legally.

6. Where did most refugees who resettled in the U.S. come from in 2002?

a. Iran
b. Former Soviet Union
c. Afghanistan
d. Sudan
e. Vietnam

7. Immigrants made up ____ percent of the U.S. population in 2000?

a. 5
b. 11
c. 22
d. 29

8. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the total number of immigrants living in the U.S. was more than 31 million.  How many undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S. that same year (estimated)?

a. 7 million
b. 10 million
c. 15 million
d. 20 million

9.  In 2000, almost three quarters of immigrants settled in ___ states?

a. 4
b. 5
c. 6
d. 7

10. About what percent of recent immigrants do not speak English in the home?

a. 55
b. 65
c. 75
d. 85

Answers: 1) True, 2) C&D, 3) D, 4) C, 5) True, 6) B, 7) B, 8) A, 9) C (California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois), 10) D

Adapted from PBS Independent Television Series Immigration Myths and Realities Quiz. Detailed explanations of the answers are found there.