A Criminal Enterprise

Our Secret Spectacle & The Need For Public Executions

Posted in News by Bidish J. Sarma on September 19, 2009

In his book “The Death Penalty: An American History,” Stuart Banner explains that executions were historically a public event in the United States:

Until the nineteenth century, hangings were conducted outdoors, often before thousands of spectators, as part of a larger ritual including a procession to the gallows, a sermon, and a speech by the condemned prisoner.

Over time, however, “the public representation of capital punishment became embroiled in issues of class and taste.  For members of a self-conscious elite, particularly in the North, sights that had been thought educational in 1800 were too shocking for display by 1850. . . . Between 1830 and 1860 every northern state moved hangings from the public square into the jail yard . . . .”  Banner further observed, “the move into the jail yard changed the character of capital punishment. . . . with executions conducted behind closed doors . . . out of the public eye, the people were no longer punishing the criminal.  Now the government was doing the punishing, and the people were reading about it later.”

This past week, as news broke of the State of Ohio’s botched attempt to execute Romell Broom, I began to think about whether our society needs to make public executions available.

Executions continue to be conducted in private.  As Justice Brennan noted in his concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 297 (1972), “[n]o longer does our society countenance the spectacle of public executions, once thought desirable as a deterrent to criminal behavior by others. Today we reject public executions as debasing and brutalizing to us all.”  Of course, the deep irony is that we have sanitized the execution process not by banishing capital punishment altogether, but by removing it from the “public square.”  If our states retain the death penalty on the basis that it commands popular support, then the people who purportedly authorize the punishment should be willing to see it for what it is.  And, if proponents of capital punishment truly believe that a significant deterrent effect justifies the death penalty, why have we refused to maximize that effect?  Why don’t we videotape executions?  Why aren’t they broadcast over the internet?  Why don’t we expose our children to them, so that they may learn something valuable?

Perhaps Romell Broom’s experience down the hall from Ohio’s death chamber will convey to the public just how (in)humane the lethal injection procedure is.  But, proponents of the death penalty can mock his pain (like one blogger has done here) because we will only have his testimony from which to base our opinions.  And, our society’s willingness to cast aside the “self-serving” testimony of a convicted murderer will surely prevent a widespread impact upon public opinion.  However, if we had the videotape – if we could see for ourselves what the citizens of Ohio and 34 other states have condoned – maybe our understanding would change.  As one court put it: “Independent public scrutiny ‑ made possible by the public and media witnesses to an execution ‑ plays a significant role in the proper functioning of capital punishment. . . . there is both an historical tradition ‑ beginning with entirely public executions and continuing with the practice of inviting official witnesses ‑ and a functional importance of public access to executions.”  California First Amendment Coalition v. Woodford, 299 F.3d 868, 876‑77 (9th Cir. 2002).  Without public access, we doom ourselves to ignorance.  We grant the State the ultimate authority over our minds and bodies – we submit ourselves to its coercive power, and yet we forfeit public oversight.

While lawyers, victim’s family members, public officials, and prison staff wondered what was happening with Romell Broom in the execution-prep room, a tape should have been rolling.  Instead of watching that tape, we will wait for the courts to rule again that it is neither cruel nor unusual for the State to attempt to execute someone whom it failed to kill the first time.  This time around, like the last, the only guarantee is that Romell Broom will be punished, one way or another.

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4 Responses

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  1. Rickie Failing said, on February 5, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Do state databases for inmates have any protocols for connecting to each other so as to not miss an inmate having crimes from state to state?

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  4. Bruce Kroenke said, on August 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm

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