May 24, 2014

Should executions in the U.S. again be public?

Some on both sides of the death penalty debate believe it’s time to consider making it a reality — the ultimate reality TV show. They believe that to truly understand what’s at stake when we elect to punish criminals by executing them, the shroud of secrecy surrounding the country’s death chambers needs to be lifted.

The prisoner lifts his head slightly and stares into the camera.

Across the country, millions of Americans have gathered around their televisions to watch him die.

They hear an unseen prison official utter a single word: “Proceed.”

The prisoner’s eyes flutter. He exhales deeply, gasps and twitches. His eyes roll back in his head before his body relaxes and he quietly fades into death.

Though that scenario is hypothetical, some on both sides of the death penalty debate believe it’s time to consider making it a reality — the ultimate reality TV show.

They believe that to truly understand what’s at stake when we elect to punish criminals by executing them, the shroud of secrecy surrounding the country’s death chambers needs to be lifted.

Openness is particularly important in light of recent executions where the condemned writhed and gasped and died in apparent agony, said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and one of the country’s most eminent capital punishment experts.

“The prospect of televising executions makes sense given the continuing evidence of gross incompetence by departments of corrections during execution procedures,” Denno said. “Secrecy invites incompetence.”

Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College and author of the book “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty,” said we are now in a period of national reconsideration over the death penalty, and increasing public awareness of the issue is key to producing an informed public.

“In a period where the very future of the death penalty is at stake, it’s all the more important,” he said. “I believe the public has a substantial interest in being fully informed.”

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School and author of the book “The Death of Punishment,” said it’s important to remember that executions are already public in a limited way, with a small number of citizens and journalists allowed to view them and later describe what they saw.

“We do not have private executions,” Blecker said. “In my view, that would be horrifying.”

The question is how public should they be, said Blecker, a death penalty proponent who favors firing squads over lethal injection.

“Ideally it should be more widely seen,” he said. “If we can’t tolerate what’s being done in our name, we should abolish it.”

But without some context or explanation, people may not understand what they are seeing, he said. What may look like pain actually may be the involuntary twitching of an unconscious person’s body.

“Are we doing it for the truth or for appearances?” Blecker said.

Any effort to record or televise executions would be strongly resisted by state departments of corrections, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“It would take some kind of court order,” he said. “They are not going to do it unless they are forced to.”

Media organizations and others have filed lawsuits seeking to photograph executions on First Amendment grounds, but none has been successful, he said.

Prison officials have argued that if pictures of an execution were broadcast, it could spark a violent reaction from other inmates that would jeopardize the safety of the prison staff.

The once common practice of carrying out executions in a public venue was a sort of “morality play,” according to Blecker, that provided a graphic public lesson on deterrence.

The last documented public execution in the United States occurred in Owensboro, Ky., on Aug. 14, 1936.

News accounts at the time describe that as many as 20,000 turned out to witness the early morning hanging of Rainey Bethea, who raped and killed a 70-year-old woman.

Negative reaction to the carnival-like atmosphere led Kentucky lawmakers to do away with public executions. It was the last state to take that step.

The closest the country has come to a public execution since then may have been when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was put to death in 2001 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

McVeigh’s execution was broadcast live to Oklahoma City, where more than 200 survivors of the 1995 blast and family members of some of the 168 victims watched the lethal injection process on closed circuit TV.

Federal officials did not allow the witnesses to bring video cameras, tape recorders or cellphones with them, to prevent the event from being recorded.

McVeigh had said he wanted the execution to be televised. An Internet company tried to get permission to broadcast it on the Web, but a federal judge denied the request.

His case was one of the few times where cameras have been present in an American execution chamber.

The most infamous example occurred in 1928 at Sing Sing prison in New York when a journalist used a hidden camera strapped to his ankle to photograph an electric chair execution. The blurry photograph was published on the front page of the New York Daily News under this screaming headline: DEAD!

In recent years, only two executions are known to have been videotaped: a California gas chamber execution in 1992 and a Georgia lethal injection in 2011. In both cases, the tapes were made to provide possible evidence in court challenges about whether the methods were cruel and unusual. Neither tape became public.

Attorneys for a Missouri inmate who was scheduled to be executed on May 21 made a similar request.

Attorneys for Russell Bucklew wanted a tape kept by a federal judge to be viewed by attorneys in the judge’s chambers. The videographer would have been prohibited from showing any members of the execution team, according to the defense proposal.

The state objected, saying that Bucklew had no right to such an arrangement and that it created “the real potential that private parties videotaping executions could lead us back to the days of executions as public spectacles.”

A federal judge dismissed Bucklew’s motion after denying him a stay of execution, which the U.S. Supreme Court later stayed.

Denno, who supported Bucklew’s request for a videotaped execution, long has called for a video record of all executions.

And while going from the current system where no cameras and only a handful of witnesses are present to televised executions is a big step, “like going from zero to 100,” she said that making the process fully transparent would be the best way to ensure that executions are carried out properly and constitutionally.

“Like cameras in the courtroom, televised executions would allow the public to see how the state carries out its punishments, and Americans could more objectively judge for themselves whether the process is cruel and unusual.”

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to

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