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Should Executions Be Made Public?


General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
Democracy Now!, daily TV/radio news program, in its May 3, 2001 website section titled "Independent Radio Producer David Isay Releases the Only Recordings of Executions Ever Made in the United States," offered the following:

Rainey Bethea 1936 Last Public Execution

Public hanging of Rainey Bethea, 1936
"Supporters of public executions fall on both sides of the debate over the death penalty. Some say that, given that America has voted to execute people, then America should be able to see or hear what they have chosen. Others say that public executions would serve as a crime deterrent.

Opponents of public executions say that the event would turn into a sensationalist spectacle. Public executions were ended in 1936, after a crowd of some 20,000 climbed telephone poles, stood on rooftops and jammed streets in Owensboro, Kentucky to watch the hanging of an African-American man, Rainey Bethea, convicted of raping his white employer."

May 3, 2001 - Democracy Now! 

Kevin Bonsor, freelance writer for HowStuffWorks.com, in a May 10, 2001 USAToday article titled "Methods of Execution Have Changed with the Times," wrote:

Public Execution

View from the witness room
Texas State Prison in Huntsville
(accessed online Aug. 29, 2008)
"Some states began enacting laws prohibiting judicial public executions in the latter half of the 19th century. Today, executions are carried out behind prison walls with only a small group of witnesses in attendance.

Every state that performs executions has legislation providing for certain people to witness them. State laws vary as to who is allowed to watch an execution, but in general, these are the people who are allowed to be witnesses:

Relatives of the victim(s)
Relatives of the prisoner
Prison warden
Medical personnel
Spiritual advisor(s)
Prison guards
Official group of 'reputable citizens'
Official group of state-selected witnesses
Media representatives...

Today, the closest we come to public executions is through the use of closed-circuit TV. In some cases, there are more relatives than the witness area can hold, so an overflow room may be set up in another room inside the prison that allows family witnesses to watch the execution via closed-circuit TV. In Illinois, family members can only view the execution through closed-circuit TV."

May 10, 2001



PRO (yes)

Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed US terrorist responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in a Feb. 11, 2001 letter submitted to the Sunday Oklahoman, wrote:

"Because the closed-circuit telecast of my execution raises these fundamental equal access concerns, and because I am otherwise not opposed to such a telecast, a reasonable solution seems obvious: hold a true public execution -- allow a public broadcast... It has ... been said that all of Oklahoma was a victim of the bombing. Can all of Oklahoma watch?"

Feb. 11, 2001 - Timothy J. McVeigh 



Louis P. Pojman, PhD, former Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at West Point Military Academy, in an essay titled "Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible," from Adam Bedaus' 2004 book titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case, wrote:

"Public executions of the convicted murderer would serve as a reminder that crime does not pay. Public executions of criminals seem an efficient way to communicate the message that if you shed innocent blood, you will pay a high price... I agree... on the matter of accountability but also believe such publicity would serve to deter homicide."

2004 - Louis P. Pojman, PhD 



Nicholas J. Compton, JD, Assistant Federal Public Defender at the Martinsburg Federal Public Defender Office for the Northern District of West Virginia, in a Feb. 16, 2001 essay from the Richmond Journal of Law and the Public Interest titled "Public Executions in America, Should Death Row Inmates Be Able to Choose Between Private and Public Death," concluded:

"[F]or those individuals who wish to have a public execution, courts should not stand in their way. The public has a right to know the true nature of a procedure it sanctions. Moreover, public executions serve as a check on the prison officials conducting the execution. If the public is going to sanction an execution, it should be assured that the execution is being carried out in as humane a manner as possible given the situation.

If the procedure is gruesome, so be it. If execution horror stories are shown on television, then so be it. The public has a right to know what it is authorizing. Some people may find the procedure barbaric and may be moved to protest further executions. Some people may see the execution as a just and rightful end to a barbaric human being.

Either way, if the condemned individual wishes to have his message broadcast, if the news media wishes to facilitate that broadcast, and if citizens choose to watch that broadcast, then they should be able to exercise that choice free from any unreasonable restrictions placed on them by the state."

Feb. 16, 2001 - Nicholas J. Compton, JD 



Nicholas Levi, JD, Associate Attorney at Kightlinger & Gray, LLP, in a Dec. 2002 Federal Communications Law Journal article titled "Veil of Secrecy: Public Executions, Limitations on Reporting Capital Punishment, and the Content-Based Nature of Private Execution Laws," wrote:

"In the 1830s and 1840s there was a strong, grass-roots movement pushing for the abolition of capital punishment. The states enacted 'private' execution laws, and there is evidence to suggest that these laws were enacted for the express purpose of limiting the public's access to the brutality of the death penalty. Following the enactment of these laws, opposition to capital punishment dropped, and the death penalty remains a part of the American criminal justice system 160 years later...

[T]he public has a right to view executions; therefore, the state may not prohibit the media from acting as the public's representative. This argument, however, has repeatedly failed in the courts, and efforts to televise executions ultimately have lost because the courts have characterized them as 'access cases'...

Because the media has no general constitutional right of access beyond that of the general public, private execution laws have been upheld. The historical evidence suggests, however, that these are not access cases. The restrictions on filming executions are neither content - nor viewpoint - neutral. For this reason, the public maintains a right to see an execution because the state may not prohibit public debate by suppressing a particular side or viewpoint on an issue."

Dec. 2002 - Nicholas W. Levi, JD 



John C. Dvorak, Editor and Publisher of Dvorak Uncensored, in a Dec. 29, 2006 dvorak.org article titled "Dvorak Unsensored - Should We Broadcast the Saddam Execution on Pay-Per-View?," wrote:

"[T]he Saddam execution should be broadcast to the USA market via pay-per-view (PPV) and the proceeds distributed to the families of the dead and wounded soldiers. Apparently the local TV folks in Iraq will have cameras ready and it may be broadcast there. So it’s an easy process.

Personally I think the idea is brilliant and long overdue, especially for the apparent bloodthirsty American market which flock to Ultimate Fighting PPV broadcasts and other extreme events. Many viewers still think that professional wrestling is real. Perhaps they should be exposed to something that is real.

The drawback (or benefit, depending on your perspective) to this idea is having to listen to people moan-and-groan if such a plan comes to pass. Public executions are nothing new. It’s just a matter of time before they are broadcast. I say let’s do this one."

Dec. 29, 2006 - John C. Dvorak 



CON (no)

Harley Lappin, Warden of the Terre Haute United States Penitentiary in Indiana, in the Apr. 18, 2001 case titled Entertainment Network, Inc. v. Lappin, argued against the public broadcasting of Timothy McVeigh execution as follows:

"First... to maintain security and good order in a prison setting, it is important that inmates understand and believe that they will be treated like human beings and not dehumanized;

second... the government’s interests in not sensationalizing and preserving the solemnity of executions is based upon the danger that if prison inmates were to see the execution on television or receive word of the televised event through other means, the inmates may well see the execution as 'sport' which dehumanizes them;

third... when inmates feel that they are dehumanized or devalued as persons, agitation amongst the inmates is frequently fomented, which in turn can lead to prison disturbances;

fourth... a broadcast would violate the privacy of condemned persons, and would also 'strip - away' the privacy and dignity of victims and their families;

and fifth, 'a public broadcast of the execution would violate the privacy and seriously put at risk the safety of those charged with implementing the sentence of death.'"

Apr. 18, 2001 - Harley G. Lappin, MA 



Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peter's College, in an Apr. 27, 2001 National Catholic Reporter article titled "Execution Live - Timothy McVeigh - Brief Article," wrote:

"Granting his [Timothy McVeigh] request [for a public execution] allows the moral distinction between him and the rest of us to slip away. It makes it look as if we are all just as bloodthirsty as he... Closure? Watching a human being die will make the rest of us feel better?...

We have sometimes found peace in visiting a friend or family member in his or her last hours or minutes. But what brings the peace is our love, the final affirmation of our shared lives. To take satisfaction from watching another human being die, even one who is an enemy, is to diminish, pervert, our own humanity. And it no more purges our grief than a raging scream drains off our anger."

Apr. 27, 2001 - Raymond A. Schroth, SJ 



Paul Finkelman, PhD, President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School, in an Apr. 22, 2001 Baltimore Sun article titled "Execution as Carnival - Will the Televised Spectacle Bring Closure for the Victims' Families, or Will it be Timothy J. McVeigh's Final Victory over American Society?," wrote:

"It seemed that we had learned a lesson: Public executions served no purpose except to entertain the masses, and they lowered public morality and good taste. Now we are ready to charge back to darker times, but with a high-tech, modern twist - closed-circuit television....

Attorney General John Ashcroft approved a closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.  Ashcroft's decision fulfills the requests of about 285 victims and family members who want to see McVeigh die. It also brings us closer to the time when it was good, clean fun to watch people beheaded, hanged or burned at the stake. Even a televised execution with a limited audience is a victory for McVeigh and those who are waiting to imitate him. And in the end, his death will only bring out the worst in us."

Apr. 22, 2001 - Paul Finkelman, PhD 



Wendy Lesser, Founding Editor of The Threepenny Review, in her 1993 book titled Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder, wrote:

"The most persuasive reason I can think of not to televise executions, like the most persuasive reason not to have executions, has to do with the effect on us... I'm thinking of what it would mean about us, the audience, if we allowed someone's actual murder to become our Theater of Cruelty. The danger of a TV execution is that we would not take it personally... it is possible that instead of making the killing more real to us, the sight of a condemned person dying on TV might only acclimate us further to such violent images."

1993 - Wendy Lesser, PhD