Faculty members critique death penalty and American Justice System at seminar

Brooke Ontiveros

In the first seminar of the fall 2019 University Lecture Series, three nationally-renowned faculty members discussed different perspectives critiquing the death penalty and United States criminal justice system.

The School of Undergraduate Studies hosted the lecture Monday evening at Bass Concert Hall. Professor Jordan Steiker, director of UT School of Law’s Capital Punishment Center, said the death penalty is not compatible with the ideas of human rights and decency, and the majority of the world’s developed countries have already erased the death penalty from their justice systems.

“In the long run, the death penalty seems destined to end,” Steiker said. “It is hard to imagine the death penalty as part of the American landscape 20 to 30 years in the future.”

Steiker said prosecutors now rarely seek the death penalty as a result of increasing expenses for capital punishment cases, wrongful convictions and life without possibility of parole as a substitute for the death penalty.

Mary Rose, associate professor of sociology and law, said she attributes a decrease in death penalty cases to a broken legal system, where 95% of death penalty defendants take plea deals rather than face trial.

“Defendants should have a jury trial, but they probably won’t have one, and this is a reflection of a declining attachment to our liberties,” Rose said. 

Trials are vanishing for almost all criminal and civil cases, and less than 2% of civil disputes are solved by trial, Rose said.

Rose said the trial by jury concept is withering, and this protection enacted by our founding fathers to safeguard our liberties is becoming a lost practice.

“The idea of citizens getting to decide on legal issues have gone away,” Rose said. “The jury is a protection against elites. A jury makes sure that the powerful don’t have a say in everything.”

At the end of the lecture, the speakers took questions from Twitter and the audience.

“I realized the legal system is so complex, and it is so important to get this insider perspective,” business honors freshman Sophia Lim said. 

Students in undergraduate signature courses are required to attend at least one seminar in this series to allow first-year students to engage with leading faculty members.

“Our goal is not to change anyone’s mind on the death penalty,” said Brent Iverson, dean of Undergraduate Studies. “We are just trying to engage students to think about this controversial and complex topic.”