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We believe in death penalty but shrink from watching


Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the May 16 execution of Timothy McVeigh would be televised via a live, encrypted, closed-circuit telecast and made available to the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and relatives of those killed. In light of this decision, we might ask ourselves why all state executions are not televised.

Although the number of Americans who advocate the death penalty has declined from 80 percent in 1994 to 67 percent in October 2000, this latter number still demonstrates strong support for capital punishment. Two of the reasons most often cited by death penalty proponents are retribution -- “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” -- and deterrence for would-be killers.

If as a nation we execute people in large measure because of our belief in the death penalty’s deterrent capacity, then we should maximize that capacity by making state-sanctioned deaths public spectacles. Since 74 percent of all known homicide offenders between 1976 and 1999 were under 35 years of age (including 10.7 percent under 18) watching executions on television should be a mandatory component of the school curriculum beginning at an age when children can be tried and sentenced as adults (if not sooner). Minimally, young males could be compelled to witness these executions. (Females comprise only 10 percent of those arrested for murder.)

Surely we cannot oppose children witnessing executions for fear of damaging their psychosocial development. By the time the typical American child graduates from high school, he or she will have watched thousands of killings via the media, many of them graphically and gruesomely portrayed.

If we honestly believe in the deterrent value of capital punishment, executions should be given the widest public audience. These state-sanctioned events could be scheduled for prime-time television viewing; the first Tuesday of the month designated “execution day.” Why not execute mass murderers, serial killers and other heinous offenders during a halftime extravaganza at the Super Bowl when half the nation is watching?

Although some studies have concluded that criminal homicides decline after well-publicized executions, most have found no effect, while still others have discovered that homicides actually increase after executions. This latter phenomenon is called the “brutalization effect”: Well-publicized executions desensitize people to the immorality of killing, thereby increasing the likelihood that some individuals will make the decision to kill.

In a major death penalty study published last year, Columbia University law professor James S. Liebman found that the 39 states with capital punishment account for about 80 percent of the nation’s homicides and 76 percent of the population. Although this is negative evidence for the deterrence perspective, it could be argued that the number of homicides in these states would have been lower if the executions had been televised. The entire deterrence thesis rests on the premise that people will desist from criminal activity if they are made aware of the high certainty and severity of punishment for a given offense.

There are additional advantages to having public-viewed executions. After a year or so of such fare, we may begin asking ourselves some tough questions. For example, why are a disproportionate number of those persons slated to die in some locales African-American? A 1998 study found that black defendants in Philadelphia were almost four times more likely than other defendants convicted of committing identical crimes to receive the death penalty. In 1994, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, “Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.”

Watching executions may give us pause to reexamine patterns of race-of-victim and race-of-defendant discrimination in sentencing. Of the 172 people executed since 1976 for interracial murders, 11 were white offenders convicted of killing black victims, and 161 were black defendants convicted of killing white victims. More than 80 percent of capital cases involve white victims even though only 50 percent of murder victims are white. Why is the taking of the life of a white person more deserving of the death penalty than the slaying of a nonwhite person?

Perhaps when we look into the terror-filled eyes of those who are about to die proclaiming their innocence, we may wonder how many of them are telling the truth. After examining almost 5,500 death penalty cases from 1973 to 1995, Liebman concluded, “American capital sentences are persistently and systematically fraught with serious error.” He found these cases replete with mistakes including “egregiously incompetent defense lawyers,” prosecutorial misconduct (notably the suppression of exculpatory evidence) and faulty jury instructions.

A thoroughly researched series of articles by the Chicago Tribune concluded that almost half of the 285 death penalty cases in Illinois involved defense attorneys who were later suspended or disbarred; jailhouse snitches attempting to shorten their sentences by testifying against the accused; questionable “hair analysis”; and black defendants convicted by all-white juries.

With the expenditure of relatively small amounts of investigative resources between 1976 and 2000, 87 death row inmates have been cleared of wrongdoing and released from prison. How many innocent people “living the ultimate nightmare” will not be as fortunate?

Perhaps a steady diet of television executions will familiarize us with some of the travesties of the justice system. In January, 14 judges of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals met to reconsider a ruling issued in October by a three-judge panel of the court that held that the state of Texas can execute a man convicted of murder even though his attorney slept through substantial portions of the trial.

U.S. law does not prohibit the execution of retarded inmates, and only 13 states have statutes against this application of capital punishment. According to one estimate, there are 300 mentally retarded inmates on death rows across the country. We should all be required to look at these confused souls as they are executed.

Mohandas Gandhi opposed capital punishment, stating that only God has the right to take a life and since human beings can never fully understand the motives and thinking of another person, we are not capable of making life-ending decisions. I am against capital punishment for these reasons as well as the injustices rife in the implementation of this penalty.

However, I realize that because of strong pubic support, the death penalty is likely to be part of the American criminal justice system for the indefinite future. This being the case, we should follow the example of Saudi Arabia and maximize the potential deterrent effect of this penalty by making state-sanctioned executions public spectacles. If we are going to kill people for killing people, let us make the most of it.

As a nation we have the collective heart (retribution) and mind (deterrence) to execute individuals. What we lack is the stomach to do so publicly. Michael Kroll is correct when he states that capital punishment is “America’s own schizophrenia. ... We believe in the death penalty, but shrink from it when applied.”

George Bryjak is professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. His e-mail address is bryjak@acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001