Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Kind of Class Everyone Should Attend

by Laura Caldwell

Dick Devine, the former Cook County State's Attorney, is now a law professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. In particular, Dick is teaching a death penalty seminar, which I have been fortunate enough to audit. As the former prosecutor, some might assume Professor Devine is a dogged proponent of the death penalty and that he might push his views on the students. On the contrary, Devine understands the myriad issues surrounding the death penalty. He's taken great pains to probe the topic from every angle and has ensured that the speakers who attend class weekly are representative of the wide range of philosophical, emotional, legal, practical and intellectual views about capital punishment.

One of the classes pitted a current state's attorney who has frequently sought the death penalty with a staunch opponent, Rob Warden of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions. I don't know how else to describe the debate except to say that it was an intellectual cage match between two learned and passionate people. The class should have been held outside the Acropolis.

Professor Devine has also invited victims' families who have had loved-ones killed. Some strictly believed in the death penalty, others are working to oppose it. Also speaking to the class was Scott Turow, the writer, who as a former federal prosecutor felt the death penalty was "an ugly necessity," but is now an opponent of capital punishment. Numerous other attorneys spoke including those who had worked on the John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck cases and many others where the death penalty was imposed or sought. Devine even invited jurors who decided a capital case and made the agonizing decision on whether or not someone should be put to death.

I continue to think of a couple of things as I attend this class. One, I'm learning so much more now that I don't have to memorize anything or write a paper. Two, this is the kind class I wish everyone could attend—one with honest, frank, emotional discussions about issues in our culture and our society with view points from every possible person, where concepts, ramifications, feelings and philosophies are widely discussed and where students are ultimately left to their own devices in terms of their thinking.


Sara Paretsky said...

It sounds like a great class, Laura. And you're right. As Cass Sunstein noted several years ago in the New Yorker, one of the byproducts of the Web as our chief source of news is that we tend only to pay attention to opinions (not news) that bolster our own biases and demonize those that differ from us.

Speaking of demonization, though, Devine served as Jon Burge's lawyer when Burge was the defendant in a civil suit over the (allegations) that he tortured almost 200 suspects in custody. When he was state's attorney, he refused either to conduct an inquiry into the torture ring, or to acknowledge a conflict of interest as SA, given that he had been Burge's attorney. Now that would be an interesting class discussion, too!

Dana King said...

That would have been a great class to sit in on. There are only two justifications I can think of for the death penalty:

1. As something to hold over a suspect's head when information is needed. Example: Police have the kidnapper, but not the victim. Having the death penalty as a bargaining chip could help.

2. When someone's actions have gone so far beyond what can be accepted he has no expectation of society's compassion, or even understanding. Gacy and the DC Sniper come to mind.

That being said, it should be an extraordinarily rare punishment. We hand it out in this country like speeding tickets.