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May 11, 2014

"It's time to televise executions"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN opinion piece authored by trial consultant Richard Gabriel.  Here are excerpts:

In 1936, the last public execution in the United States was held in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was witnessed by more than 20,000 people, including hundreds of reporters.  From that point forward, states decided that executions needed to be private affairs, held in small rooms and witnessed only by agents of the state, lawyers, family members of the victim and a handful of journalists.

In the years since Owensboro, the states -- with the approval of the U.S. Supreme Court -- have refined their definition of humane executions by utilizing firing squads, electric chairs and gas chambers.  The states further sanitized the execution process by developing the lethal injection method, turning it into a medical procedure complete with operating table, intravenous injections and considerable ethical questions for doctors and pharmaceutical companies who have sworn to "do no harm."

None of these refinements in execution technology has anything to do with "humane" methods.  There is no real measurement for how painful a death prisoners suffer when they are being hanged, shot, gassed or electrocuted, no matter how quickly they die. Lethal injection simply gives us greater psychological distance from killing another human being, making it feel more like a doctor-prescribed procedure than an execution....

It is natural to be both horrified and angered at the senseless and brutal killings committed by a convicted murderer.  It is natural to want revenge -- to visit the pain we imagine the victim suffered onto his or her perpetrator.  But there is a difference between punishment and revenge, no matter how we dress it up with legislation and legal procedures.  We have built a system of laws to raise us above those we judge.

In this system we have built, we must be honest and ask ourselves, "Is vengeance justice?" If we want truly to codify revenge, let's not pretend. Let's admit that we are willing to live with the byproducts of our retribution. Let's admit that we are willing to kill a number of innocent people. Let's admit that it is fine to execute a disproportionate number of minorities. And let's admit that we want condemned murderers to suffer like they made their victims suffer. Let's not dress the execution up as a medical procedure.

And by all means, let's televise it. Let's watch them pump the drugs into a condemned man or woman, strapped to a gurney. Let's hear their last words.  Let's watch them writhe and twitch, or listen as they groan and their last breath quietly leaves their body.  Let's watch them die.  Let us see what we are really choosing when we vote to implement the death penalty in our state.

Many Americans support the death penalty in principle. But, as a juror in a capital case, it is different when you look across that courtroom and stare into the eyes of the accused. At that point it is real, and not just a principle. You will decide whether that person dies.

Let's make the death penalty real. Let's open the blinds and stare into the eyes of those we condemn to death.  Let's be honest about what the death penalty really is. And then we can choose what kind of society we really want to be. 

May 11, 2014 at 08:58 PM | Permalink


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I have seen black and white pictures from the Kentucky History Center of that last public execution in Owensboro, Ky. There is a little more to that story too. Davies County (Owensboro) had a female sheriff then. The condemned black man had not committed a crime or been tried in Davies County. Rather, the Sheriff in the county where he had been convicted was loathe to carry out a public hanging, and had refused to do it. The female Sheriff of Davies County wrote a letter to the Governor, and asked that the prisoner be sent there, so that she could execute him. The Governor obliged, and the man was hanged in Davies County.

Also, the last public hanging in Fayette County (Lexington) was held in 1910, at Main Street and Cheapside, immediately adjacent to the Old Fayette County Courthouse, which was replaced by newer buildings 2 blocks away about 15 years ago. The name "Cheapside" goes back to slavery times, before the Civil War. Before the Civil War, 25% of the population of Fayette County was made up of slaves. Cheapside referred to the "cheap side" of the Courthouse, where the less expensive slaves were sold. The other side of the Old Courthouse is bounded by Upper Street, which is where the higher priced slaves were sold. There was also a public whipping post for slaves to be publicly flogged for misbehavior on the Short Street side of the Courthouse. Today, an historic plaque (which some have argued should be removed) notes that location. Today, Cheapside is the site of the weekly free public concert and beer festival after work, which is called "Thursday Night Live". Few of today's partiers even know the origin or meaning of "Cheapside".

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 11, 2014 9:18:52 PM

"And let's admit that we want condemned murderers to suffer like they made their victims suffer. Let's not dress the execution up as a medical procedure."

How the wheel of fate turns. What was once adopted as an anti-death penalty measure is now being complained about as a pro-death penalty measure. I'm not sure if the life lesson here is that there is simply no pleasing some people or if the life lesson is that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.

Honestly, if I didn't know better I would have thought the piece satire.

Posted by: Daniel | May 11, 2014 10:12:52 PM

Works for me. As long as we also agree to make being a career politician a capital crime as well!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 11, 2014 11:16:03 PM

Bad idea. A contagion of murders and suicides will ensue. Any media, any government entity broadcasting any execution should be sued for wrongful deaths of subsequent suicides and murders, since media notoriety is foreseeably associated with highly rewarding public attention and imitation.

Any lawyer supporting this publicity is a responsible for these deaths.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 12, 2014 12:53:31 AM

Executions are not purely private now. There are witnesses, including members of the press. After a bit of watching for curiosity sake, few will watch. And, those who do, many won't see anything they care about.

Yes, justice and vengeance is not the same thing. That is the point of the system in place. Retribution and vengeance isn't the same thing either. But, that major philosophical point is neither here or there really. Do this person want prison to be reality t.v. too? So, we can see how prisoners suffer?

I'm okay with people seeing how the death penalty works, I guess, though realize why they stopped making it a public spectacle. It might be appropriate to somehow have more people -- at least in states with executions -- to see at least one execution. But, really, let's not pretend that making it public will make that big of a point here.

Posted by: Joe | May 12, 2014 7:43:52 AM

Good points Joe.
Just a condescending stunt, displayed by the CNN author’s clownish lines such as “grimacing, writhing, teeth grinding …Then Lockett's heart finally seized”, and
“the Shah of Persia introduced throat cutting, or would tie a prisoner to a cannon and blow him apart”.

// “It is natural to want revenge -- to visit the pain we imagine the victim suffered …” //

What’s sad is that the victim of murder, such as the innocent 19-yr-old buried alive by Lockett,
suffered real, undeserved, fatal pain.
One need not imagine anything.

Posted by: Adamakis | May 12, 2014 9:35:14 AM

Serious question--why not make execution videos publicly available? Trials are open to the public. The public can see the conditions inside jails and prisons, where most convicted defendants ultimately spend time incarcerated. It doesn't seem that big of a stretch to allow public access to the ultimate punishment as well.

In my view, the public has a right to see what is going on with their money. In less than 5 minutes I could find you all sorts of real execution videos from Nuremburg to present day. Some of them are horrific (e.g. stoning), and almost anyone who watches them would call it a barbaric practice that should be banned. Others (e.g. Nuremburg), though discomforting, are professionally carried out without any apparent suffering. The point is, this discussion about what methods we should use is a desirable one to have, and the discussion is infinitely more productive when we're actually arguing from experience instead of platitudes.

Keeping a video record also has the advantage of not relying on eyewitness testimony if there's a debate over whether a particular method was "botched" or not. Courts and legislators can see it for themselves, rather than rely on hearsay.

Note: I'm not suggesting that we put this on public television or broadcast it live on CSPAN. But I don't see any reason why we couldn't have it on a DOC website (subject to age verification).

Posted by: Res ipsa | May 12, 2014 9:57:39 AM

Yes, make it public. But there should also be more connection to the state. Have the governor present and if possible have them flip the final switch or symbolically push the needle. If you are in favor of it don't hire someone to do your dirty work and then take the blame or credit.

Posted by: cynical | May 12, 2014 12:24:45 PM

Good point Res Ispa.

Posted by: Joe | May 12, 2014 1:53:40 PM

I can almost see the promos for the pen-ultimate reality TV shows such as "Dancing with the Soon to Be Dead" and the "Next American Idle". However, to keep the audience returning, the hook would have to keep getting more outrageous. I can also see the TV industry getting involved in sentencing, i.e., that defendent would sure bring in extra viewers.

Posted by: albeed | May 12, 2014 8:09:58 PM

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