“The way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”
(Justice William J. Brennan)
Today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and classes have ended for Duke undergraduates; I’m reading over my notes on the death penalty.
Earlier this week, scholars and practitioners—both local and non—gathered for the last Conversation in Human Rights for this academic year, “The Death Penalty in N.C. and the U.S.” The panel consisted of two law professors, a political scientist-economist, a historian, and a practitioner. The discussion was lively and embodied; Corinna Lain and James Gibson, both from the University of Richmond School of Law, spoke animatedly about their co-authored paper, “Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace”; Seth Kotch, from UNC-CH’s Department of American Studies, rapidly talked us through his research on the case study of Alvin Mansel, an African-American man from Western North Carolina who sat on death row but was eventually commuted and given parole. Isaac Unah, from Political Science at UNC, and Gretchen Engel, who heads up the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, honed the local focus with an overview of recent death penalty cases in North Carolina.
On a general level, I was struck, as I am often in academic panels—or any panel for that matter—by the rapid-fire, real-time bringing together of different types and snippets of knowledge (each panelist was given a total of six minutes to present his or her thesis and ideas). Ideally, in such a scenario, each panelist brings to the table a distinct disciplinary perspective; also ideally, such perspectives can mesh together so that the panel becomes or at least feels to the audience like a conversation, rather than an abstract issuing-forth. And this Conversation indeed felt like a conversation; the panelists were engaging, they played well together, and they played well with the audience. All this despite, or perhaps in light of, the subject matter, which has felt unavoidable in the local and national news lately. And, probably, it should feel that way; comments were made more than once during the discussion that alluded to how little Americans know about the death penalty—we make up part of the remaining 18% of U.N. member countries that still allow it; we source drugs for lethal injections from European pharmaceutical companies, while the EU restricts the death penalty—regardless of whether they choose to support it or not.
To behold a somewhat cheery, dynamic conversation about these issues is disorienting, but moreso compelling, given the manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty are taken up in the national, public sphere: in conjunction with high-profile cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing—first, the facts, then reportage on the emotional response. There was something powerful in Monday’s conversation in the admission of this action happening, it’s inherent to our national and local landscape, and it can be approached in these various ways. Those who research and advocate for issues relating to the death penalty (and/or its abolition in the U.S.) know about things like the Innocence Project, about its mission to a) exonerate and b) reform the system—a proactive effort, and a public-facing and publicly inclusive one at that. Being privy to this week’s conversation made me wonder to what degree these multi-faceted, emphasis-on-knowledge-production-and-question-generation conversations are happening with regard to the issue of the death penalty, and to what extent they increase the accessibility of the issue in the first place. I’d err on the side of to a large extent—that is, when they happen in the first place.