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Lecture Shines Light on Death Penalty's Place in American Criminal Justice System

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Professor Sandra Babcock of Northwestern Law School

Professor Sandra Babcock of Northwestern Law School. (Photo: Kiyan Bigloo/Miami Law) Full-Size Photo

Last September, the execution of Troy Davis – a Georgia man convicted of murdering a police officer in 1989 – reignited debate over capital punishment and its place in the American criminal justice system. To help explain contemporary issues relating to the death penalty, Miami Law welcomed Northwestern Law School Professor Sandra Babcock yesterday to present her lecture "The Death Penalty: Law, Politics and Morality." The lecture was co-sponsored by the International Graduate Law Programs and the Human Rights Clinic.

Professor Babcock – who is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Clinical Director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern – specializes in international human rights litigation, access to justice, death penalty defense, and the application of international law in U.S. courts. In her lecture, Babcock sought to address three questions relating to capital punishment. First, why does the death penalty seem to have such a tenacious hold in some nations, including the United States? Secondly, to what extent will the international abolitionist movement hasten progress toward abolition of the death penalty in the United States? And, lastly, why should we care about capital punishment as an issue?

In Babcock's view, the death penalty persists because it is fueled by certain enduring myths. The first myth to which Babcock refers is the "deterrence myth." Those who subscribe to the deterrence myth believe that the death penalty is a necessary measure to deter would-be criminals as well as to punish violent offenders.

Politicians often rely on the deterrence myth as a platform to present themselves to voters as tough on crime. Yet criminologists and sociologists seem to be in overwhelming agreement that there is no proof that the death penalty, in fact, deters violent crime.

Professor Babcock also highlighted the role that the media plays in enduring myths about capital punishment.

"The media gives voice to the victims [of violent crimes] and intensifies the sense of outrage," explains Babcock. "In a world where news is increasingly delivered in sound bytes, policy makers don't take the time to educate themselves or the public on the web of factors that contribute to violent crime." Factors such as poverty, history of abuse, mental illness – among others – all contribute to instances of violent crime, explains Babcock. But such explanations do not appeal to most people "Politicians would rather satisfy the angry mob's desire for vengeance," says Babcock.

Although much of the rest of the world is shying away from executing inmates, Babcock notes that it is unlikely the United States Supreme Court will change its course and find capital punishment to be unconstitutional without support from a majority of the states. "International practice alone is never going to tip the balance," she explains.

Which brings us to Professor Babcock's final question: Why should we care? As she contends, "There's something about capital punishment that sets it apart from other human rights violations." Unlike torture, rape, slavery, or human trafficking, "the death penalty is the result of an intentional, deliberate and premeditated government policy to deprive human beings of their most cherished and fundamental right: the right to life."

Nevertheless, Babcock finds it unlikely that the United States will continue executing prisoners, especially in a world that views capital punishment as barbaric and inhumane. Even in China, and countries like Morocco, "we're seeing a very rigorous debate about the merits of the death penalty," explains Babcock. "If they are talking about abolition in China and North Africa, the rest of the world can't be that far behind."

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Watch 3 minutes from the lecture. Click here for the full lecture.