Abolish Death Penalty April 4 2011 Janet Valder 003
Photo by codepinkphoenix via flickr.com

The Office Hours Team recently sat down with Dr. David Garland, professor of sociology and law at New York University.  He spoke with the team about his most recent book, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in the Age of Abolition.  The podcast, found here, would be a great assignment, as it provides a concise review of key arguments he makes in the book.  Below are a few discussion questions you could use in class or assign with the podcast.

1)   In Garland’s eyes, why is the death penalty a peculiar U.S. institution?

2)   What reasons are usually given in favor of the death penalty in the U.S., and what does Garland think about them?

3)   Are there patterns found among defendants on death row?

4)   Do you have an opinion about the use of the death penalty in the U.S.?  If so, what is it?

5)   What is one thing you learned from this podcast?

If the questions are assigned as homework:

6)   Conduct some quick online research.  When did states start outlawing the death penalty?  How many states allow it?


Jail cell at the Southborough Police Department

The TSP Office Hours team just posted their first “Drop In,” which are shorter versions of Office Hours Podcasts.   Drop Ins (about 10 minutes) would make great assignments or are even short enough to listen to in class.  In the first Drop In, TSP talks with Matt Snodgrass about his work on the relationship between time served in prison and reoffending.  Here are some questions you could assign or discuss in class:

1.  Why might some people expect that there is a relationship between the amount of time spent in prison and reoffending after release?

2.  Snodgrass talks briefly about his methodology.  What makes this type of study tricky, and what did he and his colleagues do to get around this?

3.  What are the policy implications of the results found in this study and similar studies?

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)?