On March 1, Laura Nirider and Jason Chaffetz were invited by Miami University’s Janus Forum to cover the tricky topic of the death penalty. The discussion was moderated by junior Political Science and Business Analytics major and Janus Forum president Cameron Tiefenthaler.
Fittingly-named “Is It Time To Kill the Death Penalty,” the event took place in the Armstrong Student Center’s Wilks Theater. The debate was sponsored by the Department of Political Science with support from Thomas W. Smith (Miami ‘50) and the Menard Family Center of Democracy.
“Mr. Smith supports this event to help Miami University be a place of intellectual distinction, as he thinks citizens need to consider all sides of controversial subjects to find their own positions,” said Patrick Haney, professor of Political Science and advisor to the Janus Forum. “For over a decade we have done this, led by what makes Miami great – our students.”
Nirider is a clinical professor of law and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. She has co-authored one of the very few existing juvenile interrogation protocols in partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Former Congressman Chaffetz is currently a Fox News contributor and author of two New York Times bestsellers. As a member of Congress, he was selected as chairman of the Oversight & Government Reform Committee, where he led investigations into the United States Secret Service and other government agencies.
The potential impact of abolition
Residing on opposing sides of the topic, Nirider and Chaffetz spoke about the arguments behind the necessity of the death penalty and how abolishing it would impact law and crime in our society.
“It’s not easy,” said Chaffetz. “There are difficult and compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. There is a small set of people who do something that is so heinous, so evil to its core -- I want you to ask yourself – what is the right form of justice?”
Nirider agreed that the death penalty is “a timely issue” that has several dimensions, but she described her opposition to it. “While, unquestionably, the crimes that we are talking about are horrific, there is more to these stories,” she said.
Tiefenthaler prompted the two speakers about whether, with the decline in the use of the death penalty, capital punishment should remain at all in the United States.
“We are seeing people react to the problem of wrongful convictions,” Nirider said. “The alternative [to capital punishment] is life in prison without parole. That’s why you are seeing states slow down the use of the death penalty.”
Chaffetz saw this issue differently, countering Nirider’s point with his own view on its decline.
The time between conviction and execution “takes far too long -- it costs millions, if not tens of millions of dollars to go through that process,” Chaffetz said. “You need to weigh in with what the victims want.”
Furthermore, Chaffetz spoke on cases in which the ruling of life without parole ended in disastrous consequences. “There are pages of examples of people who were convicted of life without parole in which a governor has gone out and released them -- many were death row inmates,” he said. He mentioned that in many cases these convicts murdered more people following their release.
“DNA evidence is only available in a tiny fraction of cases,” Nirider said in her response. “So we are still seeing an astonishingly high rate of wrongful convictions today.”
She then added, “This idea that we need to shorten the appeals process and kill people sooner -- before the courts have had a chance to vet their claims -- that is something that will contribute to the problem of wrongful convictions.”
Cruel and unusual punishment?
The two were then asked if the death penalty counts under cruel and unusual punishment and whether it counts as murder.
“I do not,” Chaffetz said. “There is a reason that the Supreme Court ruled on this as something that we do in this country today.” Furthermore, invoking the perspective of the victims, he suggested that they usually “want the death penalty for the good of the community and the state.”
Nirider completely disagreed. “In order to serve on the jury, you have to be what they call death-qualified,” she said. “That means that in a capital case, if you don’t believe the death penalty is just punishment, you’re not allowed to serve on the jury. Women tend to be death-disqualified, and so many do not get the chance to serve on the jury.”
Ultimately, Nirider and Chaffetz indicated that the debate comes down to differences in moral judgments.
“I think all of us in this room would agree that we need to have higher standards in place when we’re talking about life and death,” Nirider said.
Chaffetz acknowledged a key distinction between violent, horrific crimes and those related to drugs and addiction. “We have to get over that and put that line in place,” he said.
The Janus Forum hosted a public reception after the event, at which students could meet the speakers and talk on their own perspectives.
“Especially in an age of sharp polarization in American politics, it is essential that we treat one another with civility and respect, even as we disagree on the issues that divide us,” said John Forren, director of Miami’s Menard Family Center for Democracy. “This semester’s Janus Forum, much like its predecessors over the years at Miami, was a terrific reminder of how people of good will can disagree – sometimes quite profoundly – without being disagreeable on a personal level.”
“The death penalty interested me because I wanted to see how they would argue that divisive of a subject,” said Leo Ambris, a junior majoring in Political Science. “There are little things to consider, like how there are some incidents where people given life without parole do get out of prison.”
“I was very pleasantly surprised at the civilness of the conversation, with how much political polarization you see these days,” added Katie Dunn, a first-year Social Work major. “To have that middle ground and these compromises acknowledged was really interesting to me.”
Tiefenthaler added that she was honored to moderate such a powerful discussion with two speakers “who argued their case with poise and heartfelt emotion.”
“It is vital that we, as future leaders, seek these controversial conversations to learn more about impactful topics like capital punishment from many angles,” she said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to help expose students, faculty, and community members to views different from their own.”