Should Executions be Public?

The New York Times recently ran an editorial that some found a bit shocking. Two writers, one of whom is a professor of criminal justice and one who was a former federal prosecutor, argued that executions in the U.S. should be televised.

“Right now, executions are generally open only to the press and a few select witnesses. For the rest of us, the vague contours are provided in the morning paper. Yet a functioning democracy demands maximum accountability and transparency. As long as executions remain behind closed doors, those are impossible.”

They went on to argue that transparency in the death penalty process is particularly relevant given the current debates of certain methods of lethal injection. I’ll be blogging more about the issues with death penalty drugs, but a short version is this: As more and more European companies who manufacture the lethal drugs find out what the U.S. is using them for, more of them stop manufacturing or selling them to the U.S. This leaves states scrambling for an alternative. Right now that alternative seems to be pentobarbital, a drug that has been used in a handful of executions so far, with mixed results.

What I found interesting about this article is that the authors are not making a pro or anti death penalty argument. They acknowledge that viewing executions could lead to a kind of public apathy or even strengthen support for capital punishment or it could disgust Americans and become a turning point for abolitionists. However, their main concern is accountability and transparency:

“Like many of our fellow citizens, we are deeply conflicted about the death penalty and how it has been administered. Our focus is on accountability and openness. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in Baze v. Rees, a 2008 case involving a challenge to lethal injection, capital punishment is too often “the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process that weighs the costs and risks of administering that penalty against its identifiable benefits.”

A democracy demands a citizenry as informed as possible about the costs and benefits of society’s ultimate punishment.”

The whole article is here if you’d like to read it. I would definitely recommend taking a look, the authors raise some interesting and thought-provoking points.

So what do you think? Should executions be televised? What would the effects be on the American public?

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