States Recruit Witnesses for Executions

ByGeraldine Sealey

July 21, 2000 -- Help wanted: Law enforcement official, criminologist, student or curious citizen for one-time, volunteer opportunity. Evenings and late nights necessary. Faint-hearted need not apply.

Prison officials have yet to resort to traditional classified ads, but many have found themselves struggling recently to recruit civilian witnesses to executions.

Of the 38 states that have the death penalty, more than a dozen require the presence of civilians at executions — on average, these states require a half-dozen witnesses with no connection to the crime victim or perpetrator and who are not members of the media.

For years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, finding witnesses was no problem. But as the pace of executions has picked up — there were 98 executions in 1999, compared to 11 during the first eight years after reinstatement — states have found themselves scrambling for witnesses.

In Missouri, legislators solved the problem by lowering the required number of citizen witnesses from 12 to eight. But other states have maintained their limits while stepping up publicity efforts.

Stocking the Witness Pool

When Arizona prison officials learned in late 1998 that 11 inmates could face execution the following year, they hunted for witnesses. State law requires that 12 citizen witnesses to attend each execution.

Although officials keep a running list of citizens interested in attending executions, the nearly dozen executions scheduled for 1999 would have exhausted Arizona’s pool of volunteers. “Our list was becoming depleted very rapidly,” says Camilla Strongin, a prison department spokeswoman.

Prison officials began spreading word of their witness shortage to members of the law enforcement community and the media. They also posted a message on the corrections department Web site.

The open letter on the Web site asks “reputable citizens” who are at least 18 years old to submit a letter to the corrections director including a general statement of why the applicant would want to attend an execution.

So far, Strongin says, the publicity push has worked. The state currently has almost 100 citizens in its pool of potential witnesses. Although executions have slowed in the state this year — only two carried out so far in 2000, compared to seven in 1999 — the witness pool is stocked if the pace quickens.

Press Release Successful

Pennsylvania has achieved similar success with its witness recruitment efforts. Five years ago, the state was poised to execute its first inmate since the death penalty was reinstated. State law requires the presence of six civilian witnesses at executions. So, prison officials issued a press release titled “Corrections Seeks Execution Witnesses.”

The problem was solved. Now, Pennsylvania has hundreds of citizens in its pool of potential witnesses, says Jeffrey Rackovan, assistant to the superintendent at the state’s death house.

Since executions are not common in the state — only three inmates have been put to death since the early 1970s — officials are not likely to run out of volunteers.

Few Questions Asked

Most states that invite civilian witnesses into the death chamber are not picky about the motivations or qualifications of the volunteers. Although most states ask citizens to explain why they want to see an execution, few volunteers are ever turned away. In Florida, for example, officials perform background checks on potential witnesses, but applicants’ motivations are not heavily scrutinized.

Most applicants for the state’s 12 witness slots are law enforcement officials or students of criminal justice, says prison spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan. So far, with 150 to 200 volunteers on its waiting list, Florida has had no problem attracting civilian witnesses.

In Pennsylvania, the prison superintendent reviews witness requests. Applicants are asked to explain why they want to witness the execution, but most would not be turned away unless they expressed some “radical” viewpoint, Rackovan says. Most witness applicants in Arizona have some connection to law enforcement or education, Strongin says. But others have been activists in the death penalty debate or even just interested citizens.

Regardless of their motivations, Strongin says inviting citizens into the death chamber is critical to the execution of justice. “We feel strongly about it,” she says. “The voters in Arizona support capital punishment and should be able to see it carried out if they so choose.”

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