Politicians suggest that televising executions would be an effective part of
a tough on crime agenda that would increase deterrence and save lives. The
possibility also exists that televised executions would brutalize some viewers
and precipitate copy cat murders. The chance to be executed before a national,
or even international, audience might tempt some people to commit spectacular
crimes. Even though a televised execution would be the first in the United
States, the potential effects (good and bad) are international since the
broadcast would go out to the global village. Internet sites would ensure wide
dissemination of the execution and preserve it for countless others in the
future. Also at issue is public opinion and how televised executions would
affect support for capital punishment. Would the televised image make the taking
of a life ‘real’ in a way that undermines support for the death penalty, or
would it make people complacent with an administrative death that is quite mild
when compared to the myriad violence seen so regularly on television? Can the
United States maintain credibility when railing against human rights abuses
after broadcasting to the world our use of a sanction that other industrialized
This paper cannot hope to resolve many of the issues surrounding televised
executions, nor does it intend to. The purpose is to incite discussion. My
belief is that footage of an execution will appear on television or the internet
in the future. If this event really holds the promise of saving lives, then we
should enact laws to make a televised execution happen as part of our
legislative program to build a better world. If the event is going to touch off
further violence, then there needs to be a debate about how to weigh that
against a possible First Amendment right to free press or a belief that open
government ideals require just such questionable practices to be done before the
public. If a televised execution is going to touch off further violence, I think
we should try to figure out what kind and how to minimize the harm done by the
broadcast. (The possibility of this state-sponsored ‘snuff film’ being seen
by billions and having no effect is both too disturbing and remote to be
In the next section, I sketch a brief history of public and private
executions, then examine current arguments supporting televised executions.
Subsequently, I consider the claims that a televised execution would help deter
people from committing homicide, and the counterclaim that it might brutalize
people or somehow encourage further violence. The final section analyzes the
potential effect of televised executions on public opinion and our ‘evolving
standards of decency’.
The History of Public Executions & Pathways to Televised Executions
In the past, executions were public events attended by tens of thousands of
people who had such a good time that our one of the terms for celebration –
gala – comes from the word gallows (Johnson 1998). States started to restrict
public access in the 1830s through ‘private execution’ statutes aimed at
reducing unsightly public spectacles and thus undermining growing sentiment to
abolish the death penalty (Bessler 1993). Courts accepted paternalistic
justifications about the detrimental effects on the public from witnessing
executions. One court, in upholding a fine for publishing details of a hanging
that took almost 15 minutes to complete, stated that the execution needed to be
surrounded "with as much secrecy as possible, in order to avoid exciting an
unwholesome effect on the public mind. For that reason it must take place before
dawn, while the masses are at rest, and within an enclosure, so as to debar the
morbidly curious" (quoted in Bessler 1993: 365). But even denied direct
access to the execution, people in places like Mississippi during the 1940s
gathered "late at night on the courthouse square with chairs, crackers and
children, waiting for the current to be turned on and the street lights to
dim" (in Oshinsky 1996: 207).
People still meet at the prison gates to celebrate an execution (Parker 1989a
and b), but aside from a handful of witnesses the closest most people will come
to an execution is watching a fictional television show. Although media
representatives are official witnesses to an execution, the state statutes or
prison media policies prohibit cameras. In 1977, Garrett had wanted to televise
Texas’ first execution since 1964, and claimed that if a reporter with a
notebook is allowed, then a broadcast journalist with a camera should also be
admitted. The federal Court of Appeals denied the request and held that there
was no First Amendment issues because Garrett was still free to make his report
by other means, including "by simulation" (in Bessler 1993: 375,
quoting Garrett v Estelle).
This precedent is binding only in the Fifth Circuit and could easily be
overruled on the basis of other cases in which courts have held that transcripts
of proceedings are no substitute for television coverage. Indeed, in the two
decades since this decision, several channels of CSPAN coverage of Congress
supplement the Congressional Record and Court-TV broadcasts judicial
proceedings. Further, "with television stations in the United States
already broadcasting assassinations and executions in other countries…it is
ironic and contrary to the First Amendment principles that executions performed
by our own government are deemed inappropriate for television audiences in the
United States" (Bessler 1993: 403)
Claims that executions should be televised because of the First Amendment or
principles of open government share a basis in the importance of an informed
public to democratic self-governance. They differ, however, in that one claims
the right of television to show the execution; the other claims a right
of the general public to view the workings of government (and television is
the medium through which the information is carried). Courts have stated that
visual impressions add dimensions that print does not and that "the
importance of conveying the fullest information possible increases as the
importance of the particular news event or news setting increases" (in
Bessler 1993: 402 n 273). Because the death penalty is a dramatic display of
state power -- whether it is the first in many years or one of several dozen a
state will do this year – citizens should have the fullest information
possible from a televised proceeding. Indeed, Bessler notes that Eighth
Amendment jurisprudence requires the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment
to be evaluated against the "evolving standards of decency that mark the
progress of a maturing society" ( 1993: 423, quoting Trop v Dulles,
356 US 86 at 101, 1958). He argues that only with public executions can people
have ‘full access’ to information regarding capital punishment, and only on
this basis can a court determine whether the sanction violates contemporary
standards of decency.
Arguments opposing public executions suggest that the spectacle will be
harmful and that people can be informed about executions without a broadcast.
Many concerns about the harmful nature of public executions are based on
paternalistic distaste of crowd behavior from earlier times. The suggestion that
‘harm’ might befall a contemporary audience watching a lethal injection is
difficult to support given what one media critic describes as "the tube's
day and night splatterings of brutality, grossness, commercialism, exploitation
and inanity" (Goodman 1991:C18). The same could be said of the notion that
an execution would be ‘shocking’ or ‘offensive’, but these concerns are
weak and problematic reasons for not televising executions. The lower court in Garrett
noted: "If government officials can prevent the public from witnessing
films of governmental proceedings solely because the government subjectively
decides that it is not fit for public viewing, then news cameras might be barred
from other public facilities where public officials are involved in illegal,
immoral, or other improper activities that may be ‘offensive,’ ‘shocking,’
distasteful’ or otherwise disturbing to viewers of television news" (in
Bessler 1993: 375)
The larger context to this discussion is the extent to which television is
critical to being ‘informed’ in the sense important to a democratic country.
Executions are one of many possible areas which raises questions about
television’s ability to educate citizens about public policy. Already, there
exists what Johnson (1998) calls a ‘cottage industry’ of people viewing
executions and writing about them. People can view simulated executions
in many movies and television crime dramas. But the argument is that the visual
depiction of an actual execution provides additional knowledge and that it is
more likely to be seen than a newspaper or book. One media critic even asserts
that "for most of the nation, all those beer-and-pretzel people, the
picture is the thing and television is the source" (Goodman 1991:C18).
Debate about televising executions thus involves many more values than simple
support or dissent about capital punishment. Combined with other arguments about
the potential of broadcast executions to deter and/or create abhorrence of
executions, people on different sides of the capital punishment debate can find
themselves united on the issue of televising it. For example, in Sister Helen
Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, one of the condemned decided he would like
his electrocution televised because it "would change some minds" when
people to "see what they are really doing" (1993: 207). The father of
one of his victims believes "what we should do is fry the bastards on
prime-time" to "see if that doesn’t give second thoughts to anybody
thinking of murder" (1993: 235).
Their positions represent others who favor televising executions. For
example, now-retired talk show host Phil Donahue expressed his desire to
televise a 1994 execution on the assumption that the exposure would reduce
support for capital punishment (Goodman 1994: C15). Senator Mark Hatfield
proposed public executions for federal death penalty cases because he believed
people would turn against it once they saw the execution (Bessler 1993: 368 n
60). Other legislators, though, suggest televising executions as part of tough
on crime public policy (Bowers and Pierce 1980:453; Gugliotta 1994:A13; Varne
1995:B3). More recently, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes suggested coverage of
McVeigh’s execution for his part in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168
people: "If it’s a public policy to take an individual’s life, why in
the world shouldn’t the American public be allowed to see it?" The
executive producer – who would later agree to air footage of Dr Jack Kevorkian
assisting in a suicide – said it would happen "over my dead body…I don’t
see any point except shocking people" (in Turner 1997: 83).
Many of the assumptions underlying the various positions are open to question
and explored in subsequent sections, but one important conclusion is that people
with opposing views on capital punishment could become strange bedfellows in the
politics of televising an execution. They could even have drastically different
reasons for supporting it, but still work together to support legislation,
litigation, or a mission to capture an image and distribute it.
Scared Straight & Death Penalty Deterrence
Deterrence is the notion that the pain of punishment prevent other crimes,
and can be part of a utilitarian justification for punishment because of the
larger good it does by saving lives. Deterrence is premised on a rational choice
model in which people weigh the pleasures or gains of a crime against the
certainty, severity and swiftness of a possible punishment. Empirical studies
have failed to find support for a deterrent effect from capital punishment
instead of life imprisonment, but the question here is how publicity affects
deterrence. Importantly, though, few people revoke their support for the death
penalty if asked to assume that it has no deterrent effect (Ellsworth and Gross
1994:27). Retribution thus drives support for the death penalty, so discussions
about promoting public good and crime reduction may mask troublesome questions
about our society's voyeuristic interest in punishment.
Empirical evidence, derived from a variety of methods in
several countries suggests that there is no greater deterrent effect from
capital punishment than from imprisonment (Blumstein, Cohen and Nagin 1978;
Bailey and Peterson 1994; Camus 1960:192; Kappler, Blumberg and Potter
1996:308-316). The few findings of a greater deterrent effect are not robust,
but fragile artifacts of methodology, assumptions and data construction (Bowers
and Pierce 1975, 1980; Kappler, Blumberg and Potter 1996:315; McGahey 1980). The
argument about televising the death penalty, though, assumes that deterrence is
low because executions occur out of public view and capital punishment would
deter if only more people knew of its use. Indeed, Camus suggested that if
deterrence were a serious argument in favor of capital punishment, then people
should be shown more photographs of it or the scaffold should be moved to the
town square. "The entire population should be invited," he said
"and the ceremony should be put on television for those who couldn't
Camus' sarcastic comment is argued in earnest by contemporary
politicians because part of deterrence is related to communications theory.
Punishment needs to be certain, swift and severe -- and these attributes need to
be made salient to a potential law breaker. Television is ideal to 'get out the
word' because it is present in 98-99% of households -- more than have indoor
plumbing or refrigerators (Surette 1992:33). People watch frequently and for a
long duration; they regard TV as the most credible 'complete,' 'intelligent,'
and 'unbiased' source of news (Bailey 1990:628; see Postman 1985 for an eloquent
dissent). However, anecdotal evidence from people with intense exposure to
capital punishment does not suggest a deterrent effect. European pickpockets
frequently plied their trade at the hanging of other pickpockets (Camus
1960:189); both inmates and law enforcement officers who have been around
executions have gone on to commit capital murders (Espy 1980; Senate Judiciary
Committee 1968). More controlled and systematic research on publicized
executions and deterrence bears out the anecdotal findings. Bailey, for example,
examines the deterrent effect of newspaper and television coverage of
executions, controlling for whether the news included graphic details. The
correlations for publicity and deterrence (and its opposite, brutalization) are
not statistically significant -- and they do not become significant in any model
with lag effects ranging from 1 to 12 months (Bailey 1990).
The deterrent effect is weak because the 'rational choice'
model does not always apply to homicidal situations. Rationality can be short
term rather than have a longer time horizon that includes punishments many years
down the road after a capture and conviction that may seem unlikely. Decisions
also involve irrational elements and situational seductions (Katz 1988; Barak
1998). People kill in the heat of passion; they get drunk and/or drugged up.
Some may be violent due to brain damage, including from abuse as a child (Lewis
1986). Others live in the midst of such violence that they -- like those in a
war zone -- plan and think about their own funerals (Brown 1993:A1). Children
who say, "if I grow up, Mr. Kemp, I want to be a bus driver"
obviously experience other threats to their lives with such salience that they
will not be deterred by state ordered execution, whether televised or not (Weisskopf
1996:A1; emphasis supplied). The argument about deterrence further assumes that
execution footage would stand out in a medium where violence is more rampant
than in the real world. The methods of execution, especially lethal injection,
seem tame by comparison to thousands of other televised deaths played to viewers
and gruesome mutilation many have performed in video games.
The United States has already experimented with a ‘scared
straight’ program in the form of a television documentary based on the
Juvenile Awareness Project created by the Lifers' Group at Rahway Prison (New
Jersey). Rap sessions between convicts and the high school students were meant
to explain the consequences of crime and "demonstrated the unpleasantness
and brutality of prison life by verbal abuse and physical intimidation directed
towards the juveniles" (Cavender 1981:433). This program that "scared
the hell" out of juveniles received extensive favorable media coverage and
widespread calls for replications of its design (ibid:437). One set of inmates
replicating the scared straight program even wanted a drama coach for maximum
effect (Cavender 1981:438 n 4). Serious evaluation of the program, however,
found no deterrent effect from the harassment and threats of violence that
included rape. Some research indicated participants did slightly worse in terms
of frequency and severity of subsequent offenses than a control group
A replication involving broadcasting an execution raises
serious issues about deterrence and the media. At what point does ‘communicating
the consequences’ for a crime become an exercise in terrorizing people into
submission? What are the ethical issues involved for the media in dramatizing an
execution for heightened deterrence (or ratings)? To what extent should the
media – the National Entertainment State in the form of a ‘user-friendly’
Big Brother 1 (in Barak 1998:270-71) – add to ‘law and order’
when the social order is heavily marked by racial and class inequality?
Brutalization, Backfire Effects & Copycat Killing
If more publicity creates greater deterrence, then logic
would suggest maximum effect from grisly executions that are frequently
replayed. The rather obvious flaw is that at some point people may well become
desensitized to violence or even brutalized, so televised executions might
result in increased homicides. Although most research finds neither a deterrent
or brutalization effect following executions, a brutalization effect shows up
more frequently in research indicating that executions have an effect on the
homicide rate. The question, as with deterrence, is what potential publicity has
to magnify the effect. Brutalization research has not specified a single dynamic
at work to explain why there are greater numbers of homicides following an
execution. This section explores several possible paths through which a
deterrent effect could undermined or negated, such as murder-suicide, copycat or
imitation, and celebrity criminals.
One of the strongest brutalization findings is from research
by Bowers and Pierce, who conclude that the brutalization effect for
non-televised executions is "two homicides one month later and one homicide
two months later," which they believe to be a minimal estimate (1980:481).
Their analysis applied only to New York State, yet publicity about executions
may carry a brutalization effect beyond its geographical boundaries and for
longer than two months. Televising executions would certainly have this effect
by making the image available across the nation – perhaps the world -- and
for unlimited future replay. The authors suggest the results of their study are
"ominous", and the "cost in innocent lives would be
outstanding" if death rows were emptied through execution (1980:483). Even
those who do not give full credence to these findings may wish for additional
study before televising executions. A brutalization effect for publicized
executions seems at least likely enough that media planning to televise the
spectacle have some moral duty to ensure that their actions – however well
intentioned and within First Amendment rights – will not result in increased
While deterrence rests on the notion that executions convey
the message 'crime doesn't pay,' it may also tell the audience that "a
man's life ceases to be sacred when it is thought useful to kill him"
(quoted in Camus 1960:229). Executions can strengthen social solidarity by
"drawing people together in a common posture of anger and indignation"
(in Reiman 1998:40). A person who identifies with the state may then associate
"the person who has wronged him with the victim of an execution" and
see "that death is what his despised offender deserves" (Bowers and
Pierce 1980:456). The issue is not simply about devaluing life, but about
modeling and imitation, which are most likely when the violence is
"presented as (1) rewarded, (2) exciting, (3) real, and (4) justified; when
the perpetrator of violence is (5) not criticized for his behavior and is
presented as (6) intending to injure his victim" (Phillips 1983: 561).
Indeed, Phillips’ work on boxing – another example of acceptable and
rewarded violence – is especially disconcerting in finding a greater increase
in homicides following a heavily publicized boxing prizefight than a less
publicized one, and finding that homicide victims bear at least some resemblance
to the loser of the prizefight (Phillips 1983). This research certainly adds
another strong reason for caution in approaching a televised execution.
Another chilling possibility is that publicity about an offender’s misdeeds
that accompanies a televised execution could unleash great harm to the family
and associates of the condemned – people who neither have done harm nor share
guilt. Although the issue is not frequently discussed, hostility targeted at the
condemned spills over onto others who serve as proxies for rage that may
continue even after the murderer has been executed. Mikal Gilmore writes about
the aftermath of his bother Gary’s execution in Utah – the first in the
nation after the Supreme Court lifted the death penalty moratorium in 1976:
I took comment after comment from people who betrayed their own
intelligence and grace with the remarks and jokes they made, and each
time, something inside me flinched. I felt that nobody would ever forget
or forgive me for being the dead fucking killer’s brother. I learned a
bit of what it is like to live on in the aftermath of punishment: as a
living relative, you have to take on some of the burden and legacy of
the punishment. People can no longer insult or hurt Gary Gilmore, but
because you are his brother – even if you’re not much like him –
they can aim at you (1994: 357-8).
Mikal notes he received letters from people who told him he had no right to
hold a job with Rolling Stone where he had the attention of young people;
others wrote that he should be shot alongside his brother (1994: 356). Hours
after the bars closed, people would pull up outside of the trailer where Gary’s
mom lived: "she would hear voices, whispers, laughs, profanities, threats.
Some people would yell horrible things, some people threw bottles or cans at the
trailer" (1994: 359).
Sister Helen Prejean notes that her mother "gets angry phone calls about
her daughter’s ‘misplaced kindness’" in being spiritual advisor to
condemned men (1993: 68). The mother of one condemned man found a dismembered
cat on her front porch one morning (1993: 107), and one of the attorneys had
garbage dumped all over his yard (1993: 161). The examples make clear that
misplaced public retaliation already occurs. Televising an execution has serious
potential to expand such behavior by widely publicizing the offender’s
Further, backfire effects can happen when people identify with the condemned
and see him as a hero. Kooistra’s fascinating work Criminals as Heroes
notes that hero status occurs when an audience finds "some symbolic meaning
in his criminality" (1989:152), for example when substantial segments of
the public feel "'outside the law' because the law is no longer seen as an
instrument of justice but as a tool of oppression wielded by favored
interests" (1989:11). At such times, or among groups with this perception,
there is a 'market' for symbolic representations of justice and "a steady
need for the production of celebrities" (Kooistra 1989:162; Barak 1998:
Chapter 11). These dynamics suggest that the execution of an African American
activist like Mumia Abu-Jamal could elevate his status among some to a martyr
and hero, thus precipitating racial strife reminiscent of what followed the
verdict in the Rodney King beating case (see Abu-Jamal 1995) .
Another mechanism through which televised executions could contribute to
violence is known as the 'murder/suicide' phenomenon. This clinically recognized
syndrome is characterized by suicidal individuals who kill thinking that
"the State will execute him and thereby accomplish what he himself cannot
bring about by his own hand" (Strafer 1983:863 n 12). In this sense the
death penalty "breeds murder" and becomes "a promise, a contract,
a covenant between society and certain (by no means rare) warped mentalities who
are moved to kill as part of a self-destructive urge" (in Strafer 1983:864
n 13; Bowers and Pierce 1980:458; Parker 1989a). For example, Ted Bundy went to
Florida and Gary Gilmore went to Utah; they intentionally chose states
that had capital punishment. Jeffrey Dahmer told the judge at his 1992
sentencing, "I wanted death for myself" (quoted in Barak 1998). This
dynamic may not have much of an effect at present because of capital
punishment's infrequent and freakish application, but a televised execution
would advertise this ‘contract’ broadly and potentially stimulate the more
self-destructive amongst us (Farberow 1980).
The potential infamy and attention from a televised execution may have an
impact on those whose violence comes out of a sense of powerlessness and need
for attention. For severely neglected people, negative attention in the form of
mass hatred is better than continued neglect. If part of the 'contract' is not
just a desired death but nationwide media exposure, might there not be people
motivated to kill by the promise of publicity and made for TV movies? Indeed,
Sellers suggests that power and attention contribute to capital murder where the
murderer's sense of wrong doing can find assuagement only at the hands of
someone greater than himself. His private despair and
desirable suicide turn a mean face upon him, he wishes to resolve his
puniness and make of his death something grand; all his life's prospects
have drained into the ignoble, and nothing less than mass hatred and
execution can vindicate his will (1990:36).
Research on serial killers seems to confirm this dynamic, including Hickey’s
observation that "society gave Ted [Bundy] what he so eagerly sought
throughout his life: infamy, notoriety, and the attention of millions of
people" (1997:162). Bundy, "like some other serial killers" found
his fortune in "recognition and celebrity status" (ibid); he was
"reveling in the notoriety" (1997:164).2
Seltzer asks many intriguing questions about "death as theater for the
living" (Seltzer 1998:22) and argues that the U.S. already has a ‘pathological
public sphere’ characterized by a ‘wound culture’: "The public
fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective
gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound" (ibid:2). Such a culture is
a breeding ground, he argues, for serial killers like Dennis Nilsen, who
dismembered bodies while listening to Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the
Common Man. Nilsen described "his final public service as a mass
spectacle of pathology and abjection. He was a black hole of violation and
pollution about which the contemporary national body gathers, spectates, and
discharges itself: in his words, he was ‘a national receptacle into which all
the nation will urinate’" (1998: 19). The question, then, is whether
televised executions would create more characters like Nilsen. Does the U.S.
wants to indulge him – and ourselves – in gathering, spectating, and
discharging on a television being broadcast to the world?
Another possibility is that televised executions will be such an unsettling
spectacle that they will add support for the movement to abolish the death
penalty. As Johnson (1998) notes, executions are not the hallmarks of
civilization so exposure has the potential to spread the idea that capital
punishment is a regrettable lapse of civility. Publicity could fuel the
abolitionist movement by increasing the salience of premeditated killing being
done in our name, especially when the condemned is young, severely mentally
retarded or female. If the reality of killing in our name is not enough, then
perhaps the actual methods when seen on television will seem inconsistent with
our self-image as a civilized nation and world leader on human rights.
In the scope of history, current executions are very secret events and the
act of hiding executions 'suppresses the horror', which Camus said needs to be
undone by showing -- perhaps forcing -- people to look at the executioner's
hands each time. This principle is extended to all those who have
responsibility for bringing the executioner into being (1960:187; see also
Prejean 1993: 197), and death penalty opponents have used this logic to suggest
that judges and juries be required to witness the executions they impose as
sentences (Hentoff 1995:A19). Support for the death penalty drops if people are
required to be an 'active participant' such as juror or executioner (Howells et
al 1995:413; Zakhari and Ransom 1999), so the increased awareness of executions
could especially undermine support with people who want to "preserve the
symbolism of capital punishment without having to witness a bloodbath" (Costanzo
and White 1994:7). Publicity "simply makes the reality inescapable, and our
role undeniable. If we want it, we should be able to look at it. If we can't
bear to look at it, maybe it's time to rethink our desires" (in Howells et
al 1995:414). Goodman, though, notes that people may have a difficult time with
consistency in determining which atrocities to televise in the name of democracy
(1991:c18) – an issue he raises with respect to the Gulf war but which is more
problematic when applied to abortion.
This argument about television highlighting the reality of the death penalty
is independent of the actual method used for the execution. The method is
important, but executions are ultimately ugly because people representing the
cooperate in the premeditated killing of a helpless person (Amnesty
International 1989; Prejean 1993: 216). Those who participate in the process
display discomfort and at times acute stress in spite of their efforts to see it
as ‘just doing their job’ and trying to do it professionally (Johnson 1998;
Prejean 1993). Although their feelings might not come across in a televised
execution, people watching have to confront the reason for their distress –
taking the life of a helpless person.
Further, the methods used for execution may create revulsion and, although
lethal injection is tame, television would also expose mistakes or
irregularities that might offend the audience’s sense of justice. When Camus
suggested that "the man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice
has been done would spit it out at the least detail" [1960:187; also quoted
in Glass v Louisiana 471 US 1080, 1086 (1985)], he meant the guillotine
in France. Now, execution mostly involves a pinprick (preceded by an alcohol
swab to prevent infection) rather than ‘the sound of a head falling’,
although crude depictions of dismembered bodies have increasingly become part of
public entertainment on television and computer games advertised as
"decapitating, spine-crushing fun!" (Interaction Magazine,
Holiday 1996, p 46; see generally Bok 1998). The television program The Day
After did have a modest impact on social consciousness about the effects of
nuclear holocaust, but reactions included at least one person disappointed that
"there weren’t a lot of people with their faces melting away" (in
Oskamp 1989: 296). Electrocutions would be more intense, but there are few
outward signs of pain more extreme than the "gasp or yawn" exhibited
by the condemned in a lethal injection (Prejean 1993: 217). Indeed,
electrocutions and lethal injections appear to be less painful than they
are, which might produce complacency with contemporary methods (Johnson
1998:Chapter 2; Glass v Louisiana 471 US 1080;Trombley 1992).
Complacency can also be generated because the effect of decades on death row
is difficult to capture on television, yet it is a crucial part of the pain
caused by capital punishment. Indeed, the stress of life on death row is the
reason the European Court of Human Rights refused to extradite a person to the
U.S. for execution on the ground it was ‘inhuman and degrading punishment’
and violated article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (in Johnson
1998:222; Grant 1998: 25). Research on the effects of showing executions is
inconclusive. Howells et al (1995) showed subjects seven minutes of
footage from the commercial videotape Faces of Death that depicts
execution by gas chamber and by electrocution. Twice as many viewers became less
supportive of capital punishment than more supportive (57% and 27%), though the
authors note that the condemned were nameless and anonymous people. A televised
execution could acquaint viewers with the details of the crime and/or the human
qualities of the defendant, and this context may contribute heavily to the net
effect. The execution will always be more subdued than the crimes it is
punishing, which could diffuse potential abolitionist sentiments. Further, a
televised reenactment of the crime prior to showing the execution is likely to
undermine both the potential deterrent or abhorrent effects because there is
less reaction to real violence when it follows the viewing of fictional
aggression (Howells et al 1995:423).
Abolitionist sentiment may get a boost from mistakes or flaws in the
execution process that offend public sensibilities and generate ‘suddenly
realized grievances’ (Haines 1992). Modern execution protocols are heavily
bureaucratic affairs designed to drain much of the emotion out of the event;
they create a certain etiquette of dying that ensures cooperation from the
condemned and helps the execution team "face the morning of each new
execution day" (in Haines 1992: 126; Johnson 1998). Ruptures in the
execution routine that make the procedure more difficult and traumatic both for
the participants and spectators include ones: (1) that are technically botched,
(2) where the condemned do not play the expected calm and noncombative role, (3)
where solemnity of the death chamber compromised, and (4) involving legal
irregularities that come to light (Haines 1992; Weyrich 1990). Haines does note
that flaws, especially if only sporadic, may be interpreted as a need for
technological improvement or as part of what a subhuman offender ‘had coming’
Abhorrence also may be generated by spectators’ glee or exuberance at
another’s death. For example, the last public execution was in 1936, when the
hanging of a nineteen year old black youth named Rainey Bethea attracted an
estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people. Espy notes the disorderliness of the crowd
(and general scathing manner of the press) was one of the reasons for halting
public hangings for rape (1980:540). More recent executions have attracted
people to the prison gates, where they register sometimes intense support for
the sanction, but the involvement of television adds to the possibilities for
generating indignities both through its own sensationalism and by allowing new
forms of collective celebration. Imagine people celebrating executions at ‘happy
hour’ in bars with large screen televisions or local football-style tailgate
Television also shows our use of capital punishment to all of our neighbors
in the global village, where the trend has been to renounce use of the death
penalty even in cases of mass murder like genocide. The Parliamentary Assembly
of the Council of Europe expressed the view that "the death penalty has no
legitimate place in the penal system of modern civilized societies…its
application may well be compared with torture" (in Grant 1998:20). Grant
exposes the problem in her aptly titled article "A Dialogue of the
Deaf?" (1998): the United States already demands exceptions to various
international human rights convention to be able to continue not just the death
penalty, but also executions of juveniles and the mentally retarded – even as
it demands other countries make drastic changes in their legal systems. The
claim the U.S. has to leadership in the area of human rights is in jeopardy here
because countries that have abolished the death penalty see the U.S. as
violating a basic human right. And, "the point of human rights language is
that it maintains there are no culturally appropriate excuses for cruelty,
inhuman and degrading punishment…The political culture of Texas is no less
exempt from human rights scrutiny than that of Tehran or Baghdad" (in Grant
1998: 29; see also Prejean 1993: 197).3
Lastly, attitudes may change from exposure to information about the death
penalty in the commentary and discussions that surround the actual broadcast.
However, little evidence exists to support the notion that exposure to
information has a significant impact on people’s attitudes (Bohm et al 1993).
Social scientists have examined what has become known as the Marshall
hypothesis, so named after a remark by Justice Thurgood Marshall in Gregg v
Georgia, suggesting that the "opinion of an informed citizenry"
would oppose the death penalty (in Haney and Logan 1994:81; Bohm et al 1991).
Justice Marshall had in mind certain facts about the arbitrary and unjust
administration of the death penalty (Fitzpatric 1995:1072), and no matter what
facts researchers use to measure ‘informed opinion’ "most people care a
great deal about the death penalty but know little about it, and have no
particular desire to know" (Ellsworth and Gross 1994:40). In fact, "a
large proportion of the American public already believes the death penalty is
unfair, but supports it nonetheless" (ibid:36). Justice Marshall thus seems
mistaken, and further, and when people are exposed to an environment rich in
conflicting information – such as would characterize a televised execution –
they assimilate the "evidence that favored the position they already held,
and rejected the contrary evidence" (Ellsworth and Gross 1994:34). A
televised execution is thus not likely to be a significant source of opinion
change because attitudes are "fundamentally noninstrumental symbolic
attitudes, based on emotions and ideological self-image" (ibid:31),
including our basic political and social attitudes regarding liberalism,
authoritarianism" (Howells et al 1995:413).
Also, television is a commercial enterprise that makes a profit through the
audience size. Television is "an institution that exists primarily to
translate the phenomenon of simultaneous mass viewing into a commodity that can
be sold to advertisers" (in Cummings 1992), so televised executions would
be driven by concerns about marketable images and audience share.4 At
a time when 80% of the population supports the death penalty, no network would
create a program that would possibly alienate such a substantial segment of its
viewers. Rather, networks would be likely to be give viewers what they want –
or what the television executives think viewers want.
Johnson tells the story about a sailor who is shipwrecked alone on an
uncharted island. His apprehension about the inhabitants, though, is relieved
when he sees a gallows: "At last, I've reached civilization!" (1996,
1998). Only people who were well settled would build an apparatus for
punishment, but the assumption of ‘civilization’ is simultaneously
undermined by the suggestion of deliberate and ceremonious killing. Does the
theater of punishment attract large numbers of 'civilized' people, and how do
they react to the spectacle of suffering?
The story can be updated because televising executions requires the
sophisticated technology of an ‘advanced’ society, but the content of the
broadcast serves to call into question how civilized the society is. One can
imagine, for example, the sailor in contemporary times returning from a tour of
duty and checking on e-mail from friends washed up on other corners of the
globe. The sailor navigates the Internet to check out the latest promotional
spin-offs from the COPS television show, then follows a link to information
about an imminent execution. After reading a description of the crime and some
statements from the victim's family, the cybernaut feeds the data into the high
definition television set and programs the VCR to record the event.
The sailor logs onto an internet chat room to converse with the virtual
community while watching the televised execution.
1 McKenna discusses ‘electronic drugs’ in a chapter entitled ‘Heroin,
Cocaine and Television’ (1992). He argues it is a high-technology drug that
creates an "alternative reality by acting directly on the user’s
sensorium, without chemicals being introduced into the nervous system"
(1992:218). He continues: "No epidemic or addictive craze or religious
hysteria has ever moved faster or made as many converts in so short a time… no
drug in history has so quickly or completely isolated the entire culture of its
users from contact with reality. And no drug in history has so completely
succeeded in remaking in its own image the values of the culture that it has
infected. Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence"
2 The execution of serial killer Ted Bundy, for example,
attracted many people with T-shirts reading ‘The Bundy BBQ’, ‘Toast Ted’,
and ‘Burn Bundy Burn’; one person passed out electric chair lapel pins while
another held a sign saying "Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue. Good Morning,
Ted. We’re Going to Kill You’; and state officials approved a vanity license
plate reading ‘FRY TED’ (Parker 1989a; 1989b). Perhaps Bundy and others are
like the protagonist in Camus' novel The Stranger: "For all to be
accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on
the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they
greet me with howls of execration" (in Montague and Matson 1983:36).
3 I already received a cartoon of Secretary of State Albright
in China being introduced: "The emissary from the country with the world’s
largest prison population wishes to criticize our justice system, sir." (Signe
Wilkinson/ Philadelphia Daily News). But then the world has already heard an
Alabama Department of Corrections official say of the state’s chain gang that
"[i]t became real humane on my part to put these inmates out there in leg
irons because they have virtually no chance of escaping. Therefore, they’re
not going to get shot… It’s not that I’m a softie. It’s expensive"
(in Gorman 1997: 455). More on the international view of US and capital
punishment can be found in the Death Penalty Information Center’s
International section http://www.essential.org/dpic
4 Certainly violence, suffering and death are subjects that
historically capture our attention, so some of this inquiry needs to focus on
television as a medium for mass communication. In his brilliant work, Postman
argues that entertainment is the super-ideology of television (1985). Not all
programming will be entertaining, but what television does best is show dramatic
pictures – such as sex and/or violence – that are visually stimulating to
keep the viewer tuned in for the commercial. Television is not completely bereft
of information; Postman suggests, however, that the ever-changing, almost
hyper-active pace of images creates decontextualized and fragmented information.
It is like a game of peek-a-boo with subjects appearing then vanishing, and its
foundation in show business means that good television seeks "applause, not
reflection" (Postman 1985: 77, 91). Television amuses but cannot challenge
the viewer the way a book can challenge a reader who makes a commitment to sit
down by herself in a state of intellectual readiness to "be confronted by
the cold abstractions of printed sentences" (ibid, 50). Less charitably,
Charren and Sandler (1983:38) state: "What speaks in the great tragedies
speaks through the word, speaks to the imagination, speaks for the understanding
of human life – its misery – its wonder. But in television, the word is void
and the violence is there as violence – like raw sewage in a river."
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