LIGHTS, CAMERAS, SIZZLE: WHY EXECUTIONS SHOULD BE TELEVISED

Election Day affirmed that Californians, progressive on many issues, are still brain dead when it comes to the death penalty. As are 30 other states with capital punishment on the books.

On the recent California ballot was one proposition that would have repealed the state’s death penalty, making life without parole the maximum penalty —it failed—and another narrowing the appeal window for the condemned. That one passed. The message, kill ‘em faster.

Well, sure. But if we’re going to do it, I say let’s do death big.

Televise it.

My thinking on this has never changed. I remain opposed to these state-sanctioned killings  that ignore –and  I’m quoting a Los Angeles Times editorial here—“clear evidence of wrongful convictions, disproportionate targeting of the poor and people of color, exorbitant costs, and an appeals process that, while critically necessary, often adds to the arbitrary nature of who ultimately gets executed.”

California is no killing field like, say, Texas, which rolls out executions like tumbleweed. California’s death row has as many residents (more than 700) as some housing developments, its last execution coming in 2006. Nationwide, moreover, the pro-execution crowd continues to shrink.

But where executions are public policy—and paid for with tax dollars—they should be made accessible to the public via TV, which would mean they would ultimately go viral on the Internet. This would give proponents the opportunity to see the full extent of what they endorse instead of getting secondhand, sometimes conflicting accounts from designated witnesses.

The condemned would have to give permission, of course.  And each telecast, live or not, would air late at night and give appropriate attention to the crime or crimes for which the condemned is being executed.

There would be other controls:

No Super Bowl-style packaging with promos, billboards, teasers or hyperbolic pre-shows. No whistles and bells. No marching bands. No beer or popcorn munchies. No breathless commentary or instant analysis. No media slugs with their noses pressed against the widows of the death chamber as if it were a candy store. No debates with commentators taking sides.

Just the process—the sights and sounds of someone being methodically killed.

In California, it would be by lethal injection—accompanied by tight shots of cardiac monitors and various intravenous lines intersected by memorable homages to the victims and testaments to the viciousness of their murders. For some this would be a moment of deep somberness and even repugnance, to others a long-awaited moment of justice, sweet revenge, closure and celebration.

I’ve been advocating televised executions for years, and it’s lonely out here on this limb. I’m not the only one to call for them, however. Talk show host Phil Donahue once raised this banner boldly prior to exiting TV, but was unfairly attacked and accused of wanting to use his cameras to exploit executions. And in 1992 a San Francisco public TV station sought to beam a San Quentin execution into homes, but the state said no.

Would televising executions be too gruesome for the public? Well, no one would command you to watch.  And gruesomeness is the point. You have to wonder, for example, how Floridians would have responded had their state televised executions when it used an electric chair nicknamed “old sparky” because in some instances executees’ hair were reported to have flamed up when the switch was thrown.

Opponents would argue, also, that cameras would transform executions into circuses, as if they are now gleaming symbols of taste and decorum. And as if the spirit of Barnum & Bailey weren’t already present in the media hordes that cluster outside and afterward hang on every descriptive word from those who serve as official witnesses.

We who favor abolishing capital punishment would cheer if supporters found televised executions sufficiently barbaric to rise up and demand a state-by-state reversal of policy. But that’s not the point, for just as likely these repetitive telecasts would desensitize most viewers to the process, resulting in no change. Or perhaps their graphic nature would deter potential murderers, and thus bolster arguments in favor of capital punishment.

In any case, what are we afraid of? In the interest of transparency, the logic of televising executions can’t be ignored.

Advertisements