Your Voice Your Vote 2024

Live results
Last Updated: April 23, 8:52:10PM ET

States Recruit Witnesses for Executions

ByABC News
July 19, 2000, 4:06 PM

July 21 -- 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 Arizonas 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.