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July 31, 2011

"Executions Should Be Televised"

The title of this post is the headline of this op-ed piece in today's New York Times by Zackary Shemtob and David Lat.  Here are excerpts:

Earlier this month, Georgia conducted its third execution this year. This would have passed relatively unnoticed if not for a controversy surrounding its videotaping. Lawyers for the condemned inmate, Andrew Grant DeYoung, had persuaded a judge to allow the recording of his last moments as part of an effort to obtain evidence on whether lethal injection caused unnecessary suffering.

Though he argued for videotaping, one of Mr. DeYoung’s defense lawyers, Brian Kammer, spoke out against releasing the footage to the public. “It’s a horrible thing that Andrew DeYoung had to go through,” Mr. Kammer said, “and it’s not for the public to see that.”

We respectfully disagree. Executions in the United States ought to be made public.

Right now, executions are generally open only to the press and a few select witnesses. For the rest of us, the vague contours are provided in the morning paper. Yet a functioning democracy demands maximum accountability and transparency. As long as executions remain behind closed doors, those are impossible. The people should have the right to see what is being done in their name and with their tax dollars.

This is particularly relevant given the current debate on whether specific methods of lethal injection constitute cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violate the Constitution. There is a dramatic difference between reading or hearing of such an event and observing it through image and sound. (This is obvious to those who saw the footage of Saddam Hussein’s hanging in 2006 or the death of Neda Agha-Soltan during the protests in Iran in 2009.) We are not calling for opening executions completely to the public — conducting them before a live crowd — but rather for broadcasting them live or recording them for future release, on the Web or TV....

Cameras record legislative sessions and presidential debates, and courtrooms are allowing greater television access. When he was an Illinois state senator, President Obama successfully pressed for the videotaping of homicide interrogations and confessions. The most serious penalty of all surely demands equal if not greater scrutiny....

Ultimately the main opposition to our idea seems to flow from an unthinking disgust — a sense that public executions are archaic, noxious, even barbarous. Albert Camus related in his essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” that viewing executions turned him against capital punishment. The legal scholar John D. Bessler suggests that public executions might have the same effect on the public today; Sister Helen Prejean, the death penalty abolitionist, has urged just such a strategy.

That is not our view. We leave open the possibility that making executions public could strengthen support for them; undecided viewers might find them less disturbing than anticipated.... A democracy demands a citizenry as informed as possible about the costs and benefits of society’s ultimate punishment.

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July 31, 2011 at 06:48 PM | Permalink


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The argument about transparency and accountability is much stronger argument than that a public/televised execution would change attitudes about the death penalty. While I generally support this idea, I wish the authors and others spent more time considering brutalization (public execution leads to more violent crime) or desensitization.

I have written a chapter-length piece providing an overview of the arguments in favor of televising executions, along with an examination of whether it would deter, brutalize or change attitudes (probably all of the above):

Posted by: Paul | Jul 31, 2011 7:37:23 PM

Is it really legally limited to journalists? I would think that most anyone /could/ be a witness, with proper notice of intent. It would not, however, surprise me if it's simply a matter that no non-victims but journalists ever take advantage of it. Certainly I don't see many people saying "yeah sure" upon being asked "You wanna go watch the executions next Tuesday? We have to drive several hours, get searched evasively, but man, won't it be worth it to see a killer fall asleep for the last time?" I just don't see that sequence playing out, and certainly not repeatedly the way some journalist witnesses do.

(I see the protests having a slightly different dynamic, for one not being subject to the personal searches, I imagine that alone would be a major cull point for the merely curious)

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 31, 2011 7:53:23 PM

First of all, it wasn't DeYoung's attorney who requested the videotaping. It was another inmate's lawyer who was attempting to present it for evidence of suffering for his client's appeal.

Brian Kammer: "It's a horrible thing that Andrew DeYoung had to go through." Give me a break, please.

Posted by: DaveP | Jul 31, 2011 8:08:57 PM

Yeah, everyone is into reality shows and blood lust, they want to see others suffer and bleed, that is obvious by the insanity of the news lately, and web sites that post sick and disgusting things, like LiveLeak.com for example.

Posted by: Sex Offender Issues | Jul 31, 2011 10:20:15 PM

What a silly waste of NYTimes real estate . . . . and given the crapola that appears on that paper's editorial pages, that's saying a lot.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 31, 2011 10:44:21 PM

I firmly believe that a video of a painless or near painless death by lethal injection will have very little impact. A video of the killer's gruesome crime, Robert Jackson beheading a woman or Richard Lynn Bible raping and murdering a 9-year-old, would have a much stronger impact. The pro death penalty ranks would swell.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 1, 2011 12:09:09 AM

The televising of executions may be followed by a spike in murders and suicide, by glamor and by just imitation. Say a serial killer is executed for killing 100 people. Televising his execution may result in the needless and preventable deaths of 500 people. This televising proposal is harmful and irresponsible.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 1, 2011 5:56:50 AM

As wisely suggested in the below-linked Sunday New York Times piece from July 24, if we are going to show the execution, we ought, at the same time, show equally graphic scenes of the murder, and describe the consequences for the murder victim's family.

In the name of complete transparency, when you show the effect (the execution), you'd best similarly show the cause (the murder).


Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 1, 2011 12:32:46 PM

MikeinCT and Bill Otis are both right. For the best deterrence impact and for the most powerful promotion of the DP, the most effective publicity would be to film the beheading a woman on death row Robert Jackson style as her lawful execution. This would not only demonstrate how ugly and brutal murder is, but would deter because of the ugly and brutal execution. Best of both worlds!

Posted by: Dude | Aug 1, 2011 1:12:57 PM

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