UF Law professors debate death penalty

Published: April 12th, 2010

Category: Events, News

Four UF Law professors opined on the death penalty Wednesday in a panel sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations. Opinions varied, with Professor George Dekle for the death penalty but thinking it needs changes to Professor Kenneth Nunn against it categorically. Professor Teresa Rambo did not tell students whether she is for or against the death penalty, and Professor Sharon Rush had many questions about it.

All of them agreed that there are problems with the death penalty today, though.

“The more we ask questions about the death penalty, the more we begin to see, at least from my perspective, that whether you’re for it or against it, it’s got problems,” Rambo said.

One of the problems agreed on are that the death penalty is arbitrarily imposed. For example, not all states have the death penalty, so a crime could be significantly worse in one state but not have the possibility of capital punishment. Nunn saw this first-hand as a defense attorney in Washington, D.C., which does not have the death penalty.

“I can assure you that the cases that I dealt with were as vile, troubling, vicious and cruel as any case in which the death penalty was imposed,” Nunn said. “None of these people received capital punishment.”

Nunn, who said the death penalty does not work and is arbitrarily imposed, spoke a lot about race’s effect on the death penalty. He raised a comprehensive study done by Iowa professor David Baldus, which has been cited by the Supreme Court. The study, done in Georgia, found that African-Americans were four times more like to be sentenced to death than white criminals when accounting for the crimes. Even more significantly, the color of the victim mattered more in the study. Criminals who murdered white victims were much more likely to get the death penalty. If an African-American killed a white victim, he was 11 times more likely to get the death penalty than a white person killing an African-American.

In McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court debated if there was enough evidence of racial bias to stop the death penalty. The justices cited the Baldus study, but in a 5-4 decision voted that the evidence was not sufficient enough to change the death penalty. Justice Scalia, who voted to sustain the death penalty, sent out a memo to his colleagues that was later leaked, Nunn said, arguing that Scalia admitted to racial bias but voted not to change anything for political reasons.

Nunn paraphrased Scalia’s memo: “I don’t think we need to debate on whether or not there is sufficient evidence of racial bias in implementation of the death penalty. I am convinced that there is sufficient evidence of racial bias in the administration of justice and particularly the death penalty in America. However, I’m not going to vote for this because I think that if I do the consequences will be so severe that we will not be able to maintain our criminal justice system in the manner in which we have done so throughout the history of the United States.”

Even Dekle admitted that the death penalty could be better imposed. He spent 32 years as a prosecutor and defense attorney and prosecuted 15 death penalty cases. He has attended two executions of criminals that he prosecuted and has other convictions sitting on death row.

“I will say this: over the 32 years that I practiced criminal law and prosecuted and defended death penalty cases, my views and opinions about the death penalty have evolved and changed, and now at the end of my career, looking at the death penalty and the way that it is being imposed in the United States, I see some problems,” Dekle said.