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Paul's Justice Page > Criminal Justice Ethics > Pt 6 Emerging Issues > televising the death penalty
Dept of Sociology
Eastern Michigan University

Fear and Loathing in an Age of Show Business: Reflections on Televised Executions

"One must kill publicly or confess that one does not feel authorized to kill" -Camus (1960:187)

"Hey, man, you shouldn’t be killing people for no four hundred dollars" – condemned man speculating on his final words to the executioner (in Prejean 1993: 182).

This article appears in Paul Leighton & Jeffrey Reiman (eds) Criminal Justice Ethics (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001). © 2000 Paul Leighton. Permission is freely given to link to this page and distribute paper copies at or below cost. All other rights are reserved. Small portions of this paper appeared in "Televising Executions, Primetime ‘Live’?" The Justice Professional v 12 #2 (1999)

The idea of televising executions seems like a bad joke – a satiric comment on media values, audience taste, or the latest in tougher-than-thou political campaigning. Any media cynic can quickly apply the logic of television to executions and create instant dark humor about summer reruns and slow motion reverse angles. What is an appropriate commercial to broadcast with capital punishment, or would a World Wrestling Federation pay-per-view program be the model?

Grim humor aside, there are good reasons to start examining televised executions: they could easily become reality and human lives are at stake. Televised executions may not be inevitable, but their prohibition rests on dated case law. A suit from the press, or even an Internet entertainment group, might prevail in a court, especially one with a maverick tough-on-crime judge. Strange bedfellows like victim’s rights and open-government advocates could form a coalition to broadcast at least one execution, or someone could take advantage of miniaturized surveillance equipment to make a bootlegged movie for television or the Internet.

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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 democracies renounce?

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 considered further.)

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 attend" (1960:181).

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 (ibid:434-5).

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 slaughter.

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 misdeeds.

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?

Television and the ‘evolving standard of decency

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’ (1992:127).

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 parties.

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.

‘Ah, civilization!'?


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" (ibid:218-220).

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

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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