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Death Penalty History Essay Contest


This year was the 16th year of the American Heritage Scholarship Program is a partnership between The Modesto Bee, Stanislaus County Office of Education, and Modesto City Schools, which includes a public lecture and an essay competition for Stanislaus County High School juniors and seniors. Students from public, private, and charter schools were encouraged to apply.

Above are the top three scholarship award winners (left to right): Timea Friesen of Waterford High School ($1,500), Hannah Young of Gregori High School ($2,000), and Kaitlynn Tran of Gregori High School ($1,500)

362 students from 13 high schools entered the American Heritage Essay competition this year. 19 student essays were selected to receive scholarships by a panel of judges that consisted of educators, community members, and Superior Court Judges. 

AwardNameHigh School
$2,000Young, HannahGregori High School
$1,500Friesen, TimeaWaterford High School
$1,500Tran, KaitlynnGregori High School
$1,000Fahlen, CarmenGregori High School
$1,000Pabalan, RussellOakdale High School
$500Hijaouy, ZakariaGregori High School
$500Jara, GarrettGregori High School
$500Oliveira, TylerGregori High School
$500Spani, ShawnOakdale High School
$100Bowman, CorinaGregori High School
$100Chhaly, TristanGregori High School
$100Glodek, JulianaGregori High School
$100Hopkins, JoshuaGregori High School
$100Jensen, AlexanderGregori High School
$100Meyer, MicaelaGregori High School
$100Rohrer, AnnaWhitmore Charter High School
$100Swanberg, JoyGregori High School
$100Swartz, KatherineGregori High School
$100Tan, Aron Christopher LeeGregori High School

2017 Essay Prompt

Is the death penalty constitutional? The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments.” Many believe depriving someone of his or her life is “cruel,” “unusual,” and immoral, and therefore unconstitutional. Others feel some crimes—treason, murder with special circumstances, killing members of law enforcement, etc.—require the ultimate punishment. Take a position and defend your point of view using logical argument and citations to relevant historical, social, and legal sources.

Guest Speaker Presentation

Aaron Pennekamp is an associate in the San Francisco office of Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Mr. Pennekamp earned his law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center, where he served as the editor in chief of The Georgetown Law Journal. He received his undergraduate degree in international politics from Georgetown University, where he graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. While attending law school, Mr. Pennekamp also served in the Virginia Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq in 2010 as an infantry rifle platoon leader. Mr. Pennekamp joined the firm after clerkships with Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Click here to view (Courtesy of Downey High School):https://youtue/.bN0Ms7wPw0hY

Scholarship Funding 

This program is entirely funded by generous community members, businesses, and organizations. (Interested donors may reach out all throughout the yerar to SCOE at 238-1701 to support this program) Funding for 2017 Scholarships were received from:

Bank of Stockton
Ramon and Barbara Bawanan
E. & J. Gallo Winery
Tom & Dianne Changnon
Mike Dunbar 
James & Carol Enochs 
Curtis & Nancy Grant 
Robert Hampton & Teresa Alley 
Judy Herrero
Kathy Hobby
Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock
Ben Kuykendall 
Law Offices of Frank M. Lima
Modesto Irrigation District
Mocse Credit Union
Modesto Lion’s Club
Modesto Sunset Lion’s Club
Aaron Pennekamp, Associate Attorney 
Martin & Sharon Peterson
Fred & Susan Rich
Douglass Ridenour
Col. & Mrs. John S. Rogers, ASAF (RET.)
James & Peggy Shiovitz
Turlock Irrigation District
Doug and Brenda Ulrich

For centuries death has been used as a punishment for a myriad of crimes: fighting on the wrong side of a conflict, divergent beliefs and capital offenses.

But in today’s world, the United States is the only western industrialized nation that still uses this form of punishment. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that not every state in the U.S. uses the death penalty for capital crimes. As of August 2017, the death penalty statutes exist in 33 of the 50 states.

The American Heritage Schloarship Essay Contest is asking high school juniors and seniors in Stanislaus County to consider the death penalty and explain whether or not it is a constitutional exercise of any state’s power. They will use logical argument bolstered by citations to relevant historical, social and legal sources. They will have much to consider.

Use of the death penalty in the U.S. has been hotly debated over the last 50 years. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended 40 state statues, effectively interrupting the practice across the nation. The Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after states updated statues to allow for circumstantial provisions and improved their appeals processes.

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The Death Penalty Information Center reports that since 1976, there have been 1,459 executions in the United States with 80 percent of those taking place in southern states. In the same time, 159 people who had been sentenced to death have been granted complete pardons based on evidence of innocence.

While much of the controversy over the death penalty has centered around whether or not the techniques used to mete out the sentence constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment, there have also been concerns over the irreversible nature of the sentence of death.

Many have also debated other death penalty issues: its effectiveness, the cost of death penalty cases and their appeals, and the racial disproportions of those sentenced to death. While important, it is the constitutional concerns that have been addressed by the Supreme Court.

The Court has considered constitutional challenges based on the Fifth Amendment (due process) and the Fourteenth (equal protection under the law), however it has been Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” punishment clause that has dominated the debate.

This year, Aaron Daniel Pennekamp will make a presentation on the constitutionality of the death penalty with a focus on the Eighth Amendment. Pennekamp is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, served as editor of the Georgetown Law Review and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. He’ll speak at Beyer High School’s Little Theater on Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend.

The presentation will also be live-streamed and recorded for viewing at www.stancoe.org.

Essays are due Oct. 18. Scholarships will be judged and 19 of those submitting will be awarded scholarships ranging from $100 to $2,000. Essays will be judged by a group of community members to narrow the field before being turned over to Stanislaus County’s Superior Court judges for final judging.

Application packets are available at the Stanislaus County Office of Education website, www.stancoe.org/division/american-heritage-scholarship-program, in social science classes and at schools.

No time is better for communities, especially our budding voters, to begin discussing the constitutionality of this long-standing practice. There are currently more than 2,800 people awaiting execution in the United States, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Because it is the Supreme Court that will ultimately decide the constitutionality of death penalty statutes, citizens should consider not only the law but also the Court’s perspective that Amendments must be allowed to evolve as society’s values change.

Has the American standard of decency evolved to the point where the death penalty is deemed unconstitutional? Great question.

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