Long before the days of 24-hour TV news coverage and the day Timothy McVeigh became the poster child for evildoers, the public’s right–or desire–to witness executions has been the subject of much debate.
As McVeigh, sits in his cell awaiting execution for the bombing deaths of 168 people, he even questions why he could not choose to die in front of the millions of people anxiously waiting for his death. He told the Daily Oklahoman he wanted his death to be televised so he could “hold a true public execution.”
The execution, the first by the federal government in nearly 40 years, will be broadcast, but only to about 300 people in Oklahoma City who will view McVeigh’s death on a closed-circuit television. Most of those include family members or loved ones of the victims.
The nation’s last two public executions were within nine months of each other, according to a New York Times article. Rainey Berea was hanged in Owensboro, Ky., on Aug 14, 1936, and Roscoe Jackson was hanged in Galena, Mo., on May 21, 1937.
About 20,000 people descended on Owensboro to witness Berea’s hanging. Many were drawn as much by the fact that the execution was going to performed by a woman as they were by viewing an execution itself. Jackson’s execution attracted nearly 500 people, some of whom paid a fee to watch.
Recently, with the public radio broadcast of sounds from an actual Georgia execution, some of the mysterious and haunting sounds of the death chamber were presented to the public.
While the news media have fought for more than a decade to televise executions, and in other ways to gain greater access to the death chamber, courts have invariably ruled in favor of prison officials, who argue that what they do requires anonymity and privacy, the Times article read.
Some groups even claim “First Amendment” rights to viewing executions.
Entertainment Network Inc. had hoped to Webcast McVeigh’s execution, but was stopped short by U.S District Judge John Tinder who ruled that the First Amendment did not entitle ENI to broadcast the execution on the Internet. Tinder also noted that restrictions surrounding executions are best decided by prison officials who are responsible for security, reported the First Amendment Center.
Most Americans (52 percent) would not watch the execution on television anyway, according to a recent Gallup survey.
According to the poll, 81 percent of Americans believe McVeigh should be executed. A majority of people–58 percent–who said they generally oppose the death penalty believed McVeigh should be executed, while 42 percent did not.
So, if most Americans would not watch the execution, then why all the debate over broadcasting McVeigh’s death?
“Knowing is better than not knowing, and seeing, it turns out, is believing,” wrote Thomas Lynch, author and funeral director, in an article in the Christian Century. “Such an extreme exercise of the public’s will and the state’s power demands a public witness,” Lynch said of the execution.
“The suggestion that this execution be televised is dismissed out of hand by the powers that be for reasons never clearly articulated,” Lynch wrote. “In doing so, they substantially undermine the rights and duties of citizens in a democracy to scrutinize the exercise of a government’s lethal powers.”
Considering the great evil McVeigh did, Lynch said it ought to be easy to watch him die. “Still, something in us argues, maybe not. Maybe even a remedial dose of court-ordered, court-sanctioned homicide in response to massive evil kills a little something in ourselves,” he wrote.
“Maybe we cannot kill others of our kind without risking something of our own humanity,” he added.
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.