Should Execution Be Televised?

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is set to be executed on May 16 and lots of people argue that it should be televised — even some who don't support capital punishment.

The calls come from journalists seeking open access to the execution of the man convicted of the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, from death penalty proponents and victims' rights activists who say McVeigh's death will bring closure to the grieving, and from abolitionists who believe that when Americans actually witness an execution it will galvanize them against the death penalty.

But the groups are also divided, with many saying public viewing of the execution would not be a good thing. Their reasons vary as widely as their views on capital punishment.

McVeigh himself has said he wants his execution broadcast, which has fueled arguments by those who believe it should not be televised. McVeigh lawyer Rob Nigh Jr. says his client wants to hold the government up to as much scrutiny as possible, but a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said broadcasting the execution has not been considered and will not happen.

Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled last month that 10 relatives of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing would be allowed to view McVeigh's execution firsthand, while another 250 would be given the chance to see it on closed circuit television. But he said there would be no wider public viewing.

Deep Divisions

Anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean called for the event to be aired, saying that is the best way to put an end to executions.

But some opponents of the death penalty, such as Amaju Baraka of Amnesty International, say their opposition to capital punishment does not allow them to condone even one execution — even if public viewing of the event would galvanize opposition.

Supporters of capital punishment are equally divided, between those who maintain that widespread viewing of executions would increase the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime and help heal the emotional wounds of the family of a killer's victims, and those who feel the public is already exposed to too much fictional death in movies and television without being offered the real thing.

Executions in the United States have been held behind closed doors since the 1930s, with only a small number of witnesses allowed. Members of the media allowed to attend have been denied the right to record the event in any way — tape recorders, video cameras and even pens, pencils and notebooks are not allowed.

Opponents of the death penalty, and even some scholars who say they are at least academically neutral on the matter, say there is a contradiction in the policy. And with recent polls finding that the American public is increasingly ambivalent about the death penalty, some activists feel it is time people got a firsthand look.

"Execution is so much a judgment, an action by the community. It's a statement by the community that this is what they want," Richard Dietzer, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told The Columbus Dispatch in regard to a request by Ohio Statehouse reporters to be granted access to the execution of Wilford Berry Jr. in 1999.

"It used to be very public, and now it's done behind prison walls. The more people know about the death penalty, the better they're going to be able to judge it. The whole process is carried out in the people's name, and they should know if those acting in their name are doing it carefully and humanely."

Does Seeing Death Aid Healing?

Paul Leighton, an assistant professor of sociology, anthropology and criminology at Eastern Michigan University who has written extensively about the death penalty and the question of whether executions should be public, said he believes people have the right to see them, but questioned how much of the interest is prurient.

"I think there are a lot of people who are conflicted about the death penalty and would like to see it to settle their feelings, but I can't be too optimistic about people's motivations for wanting to see it," said Leighton, the editor with Jeffrey Reiman of Criminal Justice Ethics.

Prejean, who became famous after her book Dead Man Walking was made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, believes that if people saw criminals being put to death, opposition to executions would grow.

"If the public could see what it means, the consequences to take a human being who's alive and take him or her into a room and kill them, I think we'd end the death penalty sooner," she said this week in an interview on ABCNEWS's Good Morning America.

She rejects assertions that executions are good for the families of a killer's victims.

"I don't believe that," she said. "I've watched victims' families going through this, watching the person die, waiting for them to die, being promised it was going to give them closure and coming out and the empty chair is there at the dining room table. It hasn't done anything to restore the life of their loved one."