The Importance of the Transparency of the Death Sentence
Democracy is the cornerstone of civilization, wouldn’t you agree? The people come together, discuss problems, and choose the solution that is best for everyone. It’s a truly beautiful thing. Democracy can only function, however, with full transparency of the law and the steps taken to uphold them. The death sentence is a very serious topic and is legal in thirty one of our fifty states. The people of the United States voted to allow the death sentence to be carried out in these states, but did they truly understand what their decisions meant? Even in places where the death sentence is legal, the general public is not allowed to view the process. This has led to the rise of those who believe that criminal executions should be allowed to be viewed by the public. It has also given rise to those who believe that making it public would be detrimental to our society. I believe that the answer may lie somewhere in the middle.
Those who support the idea of public execution claim that since the United States people get to vote on whether or not we institute capital punishment, then they should have the right to witness the process themselves in order to be well informed on the subject. Currently, executions are viewed by only a small group of witnesses. This group is often made up of the families of the victim and the criminal, the prison warden, a few guards, medical staff, and in some cases specifically chosen citizens or witnesses. Aside from what we can read in journals, we don’t truly know exactly how humanely or not these death penalties are carried out. Some sources claim that the accused pass peacefully with no violent or painful reactions while others may paint a different story, describing guttural death gargles and head lurching from the executed. Which do we believe? How truly humane is our system of execution? Some have claimed that allowing executions to be viewed publically would help curb crime by instilling the fear of the law into potential criminals. Even some people who are completely against the death sentence are trying to make public viewing legal so that they can gain supporters from those who see the process and deem it inhumane.
On the opposite end, opponents of public execution believe that the event would become a wild spectacle reminiscent of the ancient barbaric civilizations. They fear the resurgence of the colosseum mentality in the modern United States. The last public execution performed in the United States took place on August 14, 1936 when Rainey Bethea was hanged in Kentucky after being charged with the rape and murder of a seventy year old woman. More than twenty thousand people crowded the streets to witness his death including journalists and photographers from as far away as New York. The spectacle was titled The Carnival of Owensboro and was frowned upon so much by the rest of the nation that public executions became illegal. Another issue that they pose with public execution is the idea of children being exposed to the footage and becoming mentally scarred from it. Stumbling upon the death sentence channel would be an awful experience for any young child. A counter point they make to those who are pro-public viewing is that it would not actually stop crime because people are already aware of what kind of punishment they could receive when committing a crime. Many murder cases are spur of the moment or are committed by people who may not even care about their own wellbeing as long as they can finish what they started. Some even suggest that seeing the process could incite violence in the criminal’s cohorts in retaliation.
Finally, as I have stated previously, I believe that the solution to this conflict lies somewhere between both of these arguments. I think that it in order for Democracy to work effectively there has to be clarity and transparency of the law and its functions, therefore, if the death sentence is to remain legal, then the people have the right to view and study it in all of its aspects. I think that the government should establish a department to record and handle footage from executions and upload them to a secure government maintained website. Registered voters could apply for private access to this site for the sake of education. This way we can ensure that only those of age who consent to the viewing of such content could access the video archive. Children or those who wish not to see such footage would not be able to accidentally stumble upon it. The rise of the internet has created an era where information and images can be shared across the entire planet in mere seconds. By keeping the footage of executions archived in a secure site online, we can remove the threat of thousands upon thousands of people dangerously crowding each other in order to witness them. I don’t think that putting this kind of footage on a secure and professional site would incite the coliseum mentality like executions in the past used to. We no longer use the guillotine, or firing squad, or force our criminals to fight to the death. Our methods of execution are relatively simple and get the job done without a spectacle. I don’t think that this kind of footage would get colosseum level excitement out of people. Another reason I don’t think that archiving death sentence footage would cause a spike in colosseum mentality is that, unfortunately, it is already incredibly easy to find video footage of people dying on the internet. Dash cam footage of fatal car crashes, police mishaps, or random accidents pop up on sites all over the web. Even major forum sites such as reddit have such videos lurking about their archives. There was an entire thread on reddit that was a haven for death footage called “watch people die.” This thread has gone up and down over the past year, but many loyal viewers cry to have it reinstated. Having a secure site for the purpose of archiving the records of capital punishment for the sake of information and education is not going to make it any easier to find such violent footage if one really wanted to. If mass colosseum mentality was going to be a threat, then it would be one already. The fetishization of death and violence is indeed prevalent in our society, however, that doesn’t mean that we should blindly make decisions on things whose details are hidden from us. There was a point that was made that claimed that criminals who see their comrades’ execution would become agitated and be more likely to retaliate violently. If our methods of execution are truly as humane as they claim then I do not see that as a problem. If their comrades don’t retaliate after being handed the body, then viewing the passing itself should do little in that effect. I could understand if we still implemented beheadings or the like, but we do not rely on such barbaric practices anymore.
We live in a cruel world where things are difficult and dirty sometimes. I feel that one of the greatest problems with this generation is that people are becoming too soft and comfortable. Sometimes we have to look at the facts, no matter how ugly, in order to make educated decisions. If we refuse to look at things that make us uncomfortable or upset and just let other people tell us how to make our decisions, then we are not truly free. We would be living in a controlled society. I believe that my ideas for this issue of public executions could help us become just a little more aware of how our nation works. We as the voting citizens of the United States of America have the right to be informed and make our decisions in an educated manner. We determine the future of our nation. There is no room for making thoughtless decisions due to misinformation.
SHEMTOB, Z. and Lat, D. (2011). Opinion | Why Executions Should Be Televised. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/executions-should-be-televised.html [Accessed 17 Jun. 2018].
I have chosen this article to use in my paper because it dives into both sides of the argument. It does, however, clearly favor one side so I’ll look for more diverse opinions as well. This article does a good job using history and modern society to pose both the pros and cons of public executions. On one hand, people have been known to flock towards executions in droves as if it were some game or sport, on the other hand they claim that full transparency and access must be granted for those of voting age so that they can make informed decisions regarding the subject.
Schabner, D. (2018). Should Execution Be Televised?. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93372&page=1 [Accessed 17 Jun. 2018].
This article gives a detailed analysis on this subject by studying a specific example, the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. It poses the question of who should be allowed to view such executions. At the moment, only a select few are allowed to view the execution of criminals; executioners, spiritual supporters, the families of the victims and criminals, and some other close associates. This article asks what about the rest of Oklahoma? Isn’t all of Oklahoma a victim and thus deserving of the chance to witness McVeigh’s execution?
Gamble, A. (n.d.). Why It’s Not a Good Idea to Televise Executions. [online] Standdown.typepad.com. Available at: http://standdown.typepad.com/GUEST-POST-AllisonGamble-NotGoodIdeaToTeleviseExecutions.pdf [Accessed 17 Jun. 2018].
I chose this because the writer is one of the few that I’ve found so far that whole heartedly opposes the idea of public executions. She brings up quite a few of the main points from some other articles that support public execution and breaks them down one at a time to try to prove that they are flimsy reasons. She’ll be helpful in learning more about the different arguments from both sides.
Lat, D. (2018). Should Executions Be Televised?. [online] Above the Law. Available at: https://abovethelaw.com/2011/08/should-executions-be-televised/?rf=1 [Accessed 17 Jun. 2018].
This article contains further thoughts from David Lat, one of the participants in the discussion that I listed first. I chose this article so that I could gain more information about what David Lat has to say on the matter. Lat explains that if transparency can help someone decide to become a lawyer, then transparency should be applied to something as important as capital punishment.
Npr.org. (2018). NPR Choice page. [online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/apr/010430.execution.html [Accessed 17 Jun. 2018].
I chose this article because it details the last public execution in the United States before it was banned. The article goes into detail about the execution of Rainey Bethea in 1936. I figured going back and studying a bit of the history behind public executions would give me some more insight on the matter. I will be looking into more articles like this one in the future as well.