Death penalty

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VCAL Units

Reading and Writing

Oral Communication

VCAL Unit Level

Activities in this unit are focused at Foundation and Intermediate levels of VCAL. Intermediate level students should produce more complex written texts and work more independently. Some tasks may be modified to be taught at the Senior level.
Overview of Unit

This unit aims to raise awareness of the work of Amnesty International and their campaign against the death penalty. The unit will include surveying a section of the community to determine public attitudes towards the death penalty. A variety of activities are included in the unit to cater to a variety of skill levels and student interests.

This unit highlights issues related to convicted felons and therefore, will raise many questions of right and wrong thereby developing the basis for debate and putting into focus the humanitarian aspect of crime and punishment. The units provide students with a range of opportunities to consider and formulate opinions about the death penalty.
Human rights – Death Penalty:

The purpose of the unit is to raise student awareness of the death penalty as a human rights issue and what is being done to abolish it. Students will look at the countries that currently carry out executions, the arguments for and against the death penalty and general public perception of the issue.


This unit aims to raise awareness of the work of Amnesty International and their campaign against the death penalty. The purpose of this unit is to focus on the development of reading, writing, numeracy and research skills. Students will also develop ICT skills through Internet research. The unit will develop writing skills as students reflect upon their findings and personal opinion on the topic. With the development and planning of a survey, students will strengthen numeracy skills, as well as problem solving and interpersonal skills through team participation.

The focus of the unit is to:

  • improve subject specific knowledge applicable to the death penalty

  • develop an understanding of social and humanitarian issues

  • develop an awareness of audience and purpose in written texts

  • identify and using persuasive techniques

  • understand the relationship between facts and opinions

  • develop arguments based on evidence, not just opinions

  • understand the structure of texts and using this knowledge to critique texts and to produce effective texts

Resource requirements
Computers For internet research and written work

Facilities and equipment DVD player and projector

Other material Poster paper, coloured pens etc

Teacher notes - About the ‘Abolish the Death Penalty’ campaign
Amnesty International, along with a number of other organisations, is actively promoting a world without executions.
The death penalty violates one of the fundamental human rights - the right to life itself. Amnesty International is opposed to the use of the death penalty, anywhere, for any reason. More than half of the world's countries have turned their backs on it, recognising it as a cruel and inhuman punishment and a violation of basic human rights.
Each year thousands of people are executed in a relatively small number of countries. China alone executed at least 3,400 people in 2004, although the true figure is certainly much higher. The USA has executed nearly 1,000 people since it reintroduced the death penalty in 1976, joining Iran, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and others defying the global trend.
In recent years the international spotlight has been on death penalty cases involving Australian citizens that have been convicted of drug trafficking, such as the Bali 9 in Indonesia and Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore.

To find out the latest news on the death penalty campaign, go to Amnesty International’s website at

This activity gives students background to the death penalty. As this form of punishment is not a legal option in Australia, some students may be either unaware of the practice or hold perceptions based on myth and misinformation. This activity is the basis for the whole unit and teachers should ensure that students have adequate time to complete the worksheet in order to gain a thorough understanding of the topic.
a) Discuss with students what they have heard about the death penalty in the news. Students use newspaper articles to help them complete Worksheet 1: Current affairs. You may need to provide them with newspaper articles of cases such as the Bali 9, Van Nguyen or Amrozzi.
b) Discuss with students prior to their research what they know about the death penalty. This discussion would include:

  • the countries that conduct this form of punishment

  • countries used to carry out the death penalty and no longer do

  • Reasons people are executed; and

  • If the death penalty is an effective way to stop people from carrying out serious crimes

You may like to record the information gained from the discussion to refer back to after they have completed the research.

c) Students use Handout 1 to complete Worksheet 2: What is the Death Penalty all about?
d) When students have completed Worksheet 2, allow time for further discussion and for students to compare their answers.
Extension activity:

Students find additional newspaper articles that deal with the death penalty issue

During the course of the unit, students create a log of attitudes people have about the different aspects of the death penalty. They can use the log to complete the survey (Activity 3).

In this activity, students view films featuring stories of the death penalty around the world. Students are able to explore the key facts and issues presented and the attitudes of different people towards the death penalty. Before viewing the film, discuss the difference between facts, issues and opinions. After the students have viewed the films it may be appropriate to allow students to discuss their reactions to the films.
a) Students watch an animated slideshow, narrated by Colin Firth. To view the film, go to: or
Students may write brief notes while watching the film and complete Worksheet 3.
After watching the film, students work in small groups to complete a mindmap that shows the facts, issues and opinions expressed in the film and how they are connected. Each group will discuss which issues they feel are most important and what influence the facts, emotions and opinions that were presented had on their choice.
b) Students watch the film ‘Secondary Citizenship - Letters to Death Row’. To view the film, go to Teachers TV at:
This film focuses on the letter writing campaigns that have saved three individuals who had been placed on death row in various parts of the world. Students may write brief notes using Worksheet 3 while watching the film, reflecting on the people’s attitudes towards the death penalty and why they have responded in this way.
After watching the film, students are given the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and find which articles are infringed or violated (The right not to be subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment.
Discuss the following questions as a whole class:

  • Does being on death row strip that people of their human dignity and worth, and therefore violate their human rights?

  • Do you believe that being on death row is a form of physical and/or mental torture. Why/why not?


  • Students watch a film about the execution of someone that is innocent (see list of recommended films).

  • Students read case studies of wrongful convictions. For case study examples, go to:

Extension activity:

Students may want to take action by sending a letter or greeting card to someone facing the death penalty.

The focus of this activity is for students to develop a survey to conduct on a group of people about the death penalty with the aim of developing and analysing their own statistical information and charts.
This activity will address some of the main concerns and myths about the death penalty and will require students to survey people in their local community about their beliefs and understanding of the death penalty.

  1. Discuss the type of questions they could include in a survey to determine what people may think about believe about the death penalty. Possible questions could include:

  • What do people know about the death penalty? Do they know what countries conduct this form of punishment, the ways in which a person can be executed or the reasons why people are executed?

  • Do people think that the death penalty is an effective way to stop people from carrying out murder? Do people think that the death penalty reduces crime?

  • Are people for or against the death penalty? Under what circumstances might they agree or disagree with it?

  • If people were given the choice of the death penalty or life without parole, what would they choose?

  1. Students look at statistical information about the death penalty in the United States of America. Go to and download the ‘Death Penalty Fact sheet’. This contains the latest statistics on the death penalty in the United States of America and is updated regularly. Students could also go to and to look at public opinion surveys on the death penalty, including Australian statistics. Students may use these fact sheets and polls to find relevant information and add questions to the existing list that they have built.

  1. Students work in pairs/small groups to develop a questionnaire and response sheet. Alternatively, different students or groups of students could ask different questions. All final drafts should be approved by the teacher prior to surveying the public.

  1. A decision needs to be made as to which group of people will be surveyed. Will it be a cohort of students from their own school, another school or the general public? Ensure there are measures in place so that people are not surveyed more than once.

  1. Students should conduct a trial to ensure that the data they collect is relevant and can be easily recorded. Students will also need to decide if they want to collect any information about the respondent, such as their age or gender.

  1. Students conduct the survey, collect the results and collate the information. The surveys of the whole class could be used to increase the sample size or different groups of students may choose to survey different groups of people.

  1. When the information has been collated, students should provide a report on the information, including graphs of their results and any supporting information.

Extension activities:

  • Students can also complete an online survey about the death penalty at the Justice Learning website:

  • Students use the information collected to prepare an oral presentation to the class. This could be supported by other material, such as a MS PowerPoint presentation.

For this activity, students will write an argumentative essay that gives both sides of the argument for and against the death penalty.
Students answer the following questions:

  • How do you feel about the death penalty (capital punishment)?

  • Are there any circumstances in which you think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment?

  • How do you think you formed these opinions?

  1. Discuss the arguments for and against the death penalty. Note students’ ideas on the board, grouping similar ideas. (See the following page for further ideas).

  1. Students collect information from a wide range of sources, such as newspaper articles, websites and television programs.

  1. Groups use Worksheet 7 to help them plan their essay. In planning their essay they should consider their opening statement, their arguments, other potential arguments and their closing statement.

Some arguments for the death penalty:
1. Capital punishment is the right punishment for those who take away life - murderers, terrorists, drug peddlers. Those who kill should be killed - a life for a life.

2. It is God's law, it is written down in the Bible and the Holy Koran.

3. The thought of execution will put off the criminal, who would surely will think twice before he kills if he knows he will get the death penalty if he is caught.

4. No executed person will ever kill again.

5. Public opinion wants executions.

6. The families of those killed need justice.

7. It costs a lot of money to keep people in prison during a life sentence.

8. Its the only way to deal with terrorists and people who kill policemen.

Some arguments against the death penalty:

1. Execution is a violation of the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. It is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, whether by the hangman's rope (most common method), the firing squad (China, Nigeria, Iraq), poison gas (USA), lethal injection (USA), the executioner's sword (Saudi Arabia), stoning (Iran, Afghanistan) or the electric chair (USA).

3. Courts can make mistakes and innocent people can be killed. In the USA more than 120 people condemned to death have been released since 1973 because they were found to be innocent or their convictions rested on insufficient evidence.

4. Poor and marginalised and people who haven't got a good lawyer end up on death row far more often than white people & people who can afford expensive lawyers to defend them. Therefore, the system discriminates on the basis of race & wealth.

5. The idea of dying for their cause may actually encourage some terrorists to carry out attacks.

6. Public opinion does not simply call for the death penalty, but wants effective protection against crime. When people are told that the death penalty is not effective in preventing crime, they instead call for other measures such as life in prison.

7. There is no sure evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The possibility of martyrdom through execution may even encourage such crimes. The Bali bombings is a case in point: after the three men were sentenced to death, Bali was again the targeted by bombs, on October 1 2005, which killed 23 people.

Source: adapted from Amnesty International Australia’s Model UN Debate: The Death Penalty,


Using the information they have gathered regarding the death penalty, students choose a text type to write a report or explanatory text. Depending on the personal interests and ability of each student, the following forms of written expression could be used.

  • Biography of a Bali Nine member

  • Report for the school newspaper

  • Poster explaining the death penalty

  • Flyer to lobby governments and international organisations

To make the task as authentic as possible it would be best if a real audience could be provided for this activity, such as readers of a local newspaper or student newsletter or a poster/pamphlet for World Day Against the Death Penalty.

  1. First, discuss with the students the various types of texts and their features. Elaborate on different audiences, various purposes of texts and ways that the information can be presented (paper, electronic etc.). Provide copies of the different types of text where possible so that students may analyse and develop their understanding with a concrete example.

  1. Ensure that students are aware of the correct structure of the text that they have chosen. For example, to write an informative essay it is important to present the facts clearly and in a logical order. This requires an introduction, body and conclusion or summary of the main points highlighting the central ideas.

  1. Students write their text, using Worksheet 4 to help them complete the task.

  1. The final written product submitted by students could be published in the school newsletter or newspaper, presented in poster form for public display or made into a book of collected works.

Extension activity:

Students prepare an oral presentation using the information that they have researched and the survey results

The focus of this activity is on attitudes to criminal justice and letter writing. Now that students have discussed the death penalty, they have the chance to express their own personal opinion on whether their attitude towards the death penalty has changed.
Students may also choose to write a letter of support to one of the Bali Nine members.

  1. First, discuss with the students the features of letters. Elaborate on different audiences, various purposes of texts and ways that the information can be presented. Provide examples of letters to the editor for students. Students complete Worksheet 5.

  1. Ensure that students are aware of the correct structure for letter writing. For example, to write a human rights letter you should always be polite, avoid political jargon and give an indication of who and what you are. For more details on how to write a letter see Amnesty International Australia’s letter writing guide at the following website:

  1. The final written product submitted by students could be published in the school newsletter or newspaper, presented in poster form for public display or made into a book of collected works.

Variations: Depending on the personal interests and ability of each student, various forms of written expression could be used, including short stories, poem, song or an essay.

For this activity students will organise an excursion to the Old Melbourne Gaol. As part of this activity they will organise a guided tour in order to discover the conditions of incarceration and capital punishment and the role of prisons in the legal system.
In order to complete this activity, students will:

  • locate and read information about the intended excursion

  • work out costs

  • estimate times

  • write a notice to participants, giving directions/instructions about what they need to do

After the excursion, students will produce a flier on the Old Melbourne Gaol in relation to the death penalty, detailing the highlights, how to get there and the cost.

For further information on the guided tours of the Old Melbourne Gaol, go to:
Extension activity:

  • Students write a report on the excursion for the student newsletter.

Worksheet 1: Death penalty in the news
Look at the photos below. These photos were taken at Amnesty International events.
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