A spirited death penalty debate at UNL

The Death Penalty: Justice, Retribution and Dollars

 (From left) J. Kirk Brown and Susan Poser listen to Michael Radelet speak at the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues discussion on the death penalty at the Lied Center on Nov. 28. Radelet opposes the death penalty, while Brown supports it.

Story and photos by Brandon Olson, NewsNetNebraska

There was no sand on the Lied Center stage to draw a line in, but J. Kirk Brown and Michael Radelet made it clear that they were on opposite sides of the death penalty debate Wednesday night.

The event, titled “The Death Penalty: Justice, Retribution and Dollars” was part of the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues.  Brown is Nebraska’s Solicitor General, a death penalty supporter. Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, opposes the death penalty.

Brown made it clear that his participation was related to his personal opinions about the death penalty and not as a representative of the state of Nebraska.

“The opinions I will offer you this evening are solely my own,” Brown said, “based upon my exposure to this issue as an attorney working this ground for over 30 years, as a correctional administrator, as a juror seated to decide a capital case and, to a lesser extent, as a Lincoln fourth-grader who witnessed the impact Charles Starkweather’s reign of terror had upon this community and this state.”

Starkweather, a serial killer in the 1950s, was the last person executed in Nebraska before the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a death penalty moratorium in 1972. Just three people have been executed in the state since 1976, the year the ban was lifted.

Brown said he was raised on the King James Bible, which included the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

“I recently found it interesting to discover that a significant majority of current translations of the Christian Bible now interpret that commandment as ‘Thou shalt not murder,’” Brown said, adding that murder is defined as an unlawful killing.

“There can be no clearer example of a lawful killing than an execution duly ordered by a court of law.”

Michael Radelet

 Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado Boulder professor, speaks with students in the Lied Center lobby after the debate.

Radelet vehemently disagreed, saying that executing someone for killing another person is no better than what the killer did.

“We don’t want to imitate these people,” Radelet said. “We don’t want to do what they do.”

Brown believes the notion of justice differentiates capital punishment from being the same thing as murder. “The killer, on their own, decided to take an innocent, human life,” Brown said. “We, as a society and through our criminal justice system, are deciding to take a guilty life. And if that distinction is lost on us, then we are adrift.”

Radelet mentioned Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project, which helped prove the innocence of several prisoners on death row. Radelet said he isn’t comfortable with the amount of human error involved in the capital punishment process and noted that capital punishment cases cost more than life imprisonment cases.  The money saved by banning capital punishement, said Radalet, could be spent instead trying to solve the four out of 10 homicide cases are never solved.

Both speakers framed the debate as being about the kind of society in which citizens want to live. Nebraska is one of 33 states allowing capital punishment, a number, Radelet noted, is trending downward.

“Consecutive life sentences aren’t very terrifying,” Brown said when speaking about the appropriate degree of punishment for different crimes. “Unless there’s life after death and God will enforce it for us, but that’s not how I understand it works.”

“The answer to the question of ‘what do people deserve?’ is culturally and historically relative,” Radelet said. “It’s not fixed.”

Radelet said that at certain times in human history, justice “demanded” that rapists, children and even the mentally disabled be executed for crimes.  He added that society’s standards change over time, and this continues to happen with the death penalty.

While the topic was a serious one, the two scholars kept the mood fairly light and showed respect for each other.

“Mr. Brown, thanks for—I think you’re great,” Radelet said in his closing statement. “I think you did a wonderful job.”

“I love you, too,” Brown quipped as the audience erupted in laughter.

“That’s not a concession, by the way,” Radelet added with a smile.

Susan Poser, dean of the College of Law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, served as the debate’s moderator.

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