Can states stomach public executions?

In the aftermath of a botched lethal-injection execution in Ohio last month that took 26 minutes for Dennis McGuire to die, the always contentious death penalty debate is once again front and center.

Capital punishment is typically promoted and defended by way of two positions. The first is the death penalty as retribution or “lex talionis” – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The second argument is that capital punishment has a greater deterrent effect than the threat of life imprisonment.

The problem with the retribution position is an imperfect criminal justice system. Death penalty scholars believe that from the mid 1970s to 2006, at least 24 innocent or possibly innocent people have been executed. According to the Innocence Project, there have been (as of May 2014) 316 post-conviction DNA exonerations in this country. Eighteen of these individuals had been sentenced to death before DNA evidence conclusively proved their innocence and they were released.

Wrongful convictions are a consequence of numerous factors, including eyewitness identification mistakes, improper or invalid forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors, criminal justice personnel who lie or conceal evidence, and overworked and incompetent defense attorneys. With few exceptions, poor blacks and Hispanics are the primary victims of wrongful convictions for capital crimes.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, the rich and powerful are often beyond the grasp of the justice system. Consider the deaths of at least 13 people who were killed in auto accidents because General Motors failed to inform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of defective ignition switches in its vehicles.

Transportation Secretary James Foxx stated that GM “did not act and did not alert us in a timely manner. … What GM did was to break the law. … They failed to meet their public safety obligations, and today they admitted as much.” Did 15 GM employees simply act “inappropriately,” as company CEO Mary Barra stated, or did senior officials make a calculated business decision not to inform authorities of safety problems because doing so would result in an extensive and costly recall? How many GM employees and/or top officials do you think will be arrested, tried and convicted (much less executed) for their illegal behavior?

Deaths resulting from corporate wrongdoing are almost always handled in civil, as opposed to criminal, courts. GM’s penalty for concealing safety problems for more than a decade was a $35 million fine that Secretary Foxx correctly noted was inconsequential. (GM reported profits of $3.8 billion in 2013.)

Regarding capital punishment as a deterrent, a significant body of research has found that states with the death penalty do not have lower homicide rates than states without it. States that have eliminated the death penalty have not seen their homicide rates increase, and states that have adopted capital punishment over the past 30 years have not seen their homicide rates decline.

For capital punishment to deter homicide, a potential offender must have the death penalty in mind while he or she is planning the lethal crime. This individual must also have time to carefully consider the chances that he or she will be identified, arrested, convicted and executed for the killing.

This implies that homicides are premeditated crimes committed by individuals who are acting rationally and unemotionally. But most murders are not such events. Rather, taking the life of another is typically a spontaneous act with the offender lashing out at the victim in an emotional rage without considering the possible consequences of his or her behavior.

In a significant number of cases, the offender intends to physically harm the victim but not to kill. However, a hard punch to the head, a knife thrust intended for the shoulder that finds the victim’s heart, or a gunshot meant for the arm that hits a vital organ results in a homicide. Criminologists often refer to these crimes as “overly successful aggravated assaults.”

In an effort to make executions more humane, legislators in Missouri, Virginia and Wyoming are discussing the possibility of reintroducing the gas chamber and firing squads. Speaking of lethal-injection executions, Missouri state representative Rick Brattin stated, “I’m sorry. I find that more inhumane vs. a blindfold and your sentence being carried out by firing squad.”

At first glance, this sounds preposterous, but if Mr. Brattin is correct, then firing squads should not only be adopted, but this method of execution should be implemented in a way to gain maximum deterrence effect. The basic logic behind “general deterrence” is that punishing an individual serves as an example to others who are contemplating a similar crime. In other words, the state executes Paul not only because he deserves to lose his life (lex talionis) but because his death will likely deter Peter from an unlawful killing.

If punishment is to have a significant deterrence effect, prospective offenders must know that individuals who violate the law will be arrested, convicted and punished. In the U.S., most executions receive relatively little attention, perhaps a quick mention on radio and television news, a few lines in the newspaper. In Saudi Arabia, executions are public events carried out in downtown Riyadh. The Saudi government takes the position these spectacles provide maximum deterrence value.

In this country, executions are carried out behind closed doors. The argument that capital punishment is a superior deterrent strategy (then the threat of life imprisonment) calls for the maximum possible audience, as in Saudi Arabia. Missouri, Wyoming and/or Virginia could become the first states to have public executions via firing squads.

Homicide rates in the U.S. are by far highest in the 18-to-24-year-old age group. Perhaps it should be a mandatory component of high school curricula that 17- and 18-year-old students (who are about to enter the high-risk homicide years) be required to witness two or more executions as part of their social science courses. In the 32 states that have the death penalty executions, these could be broadcast to school auditoriums.

One can’t object to adolescents watching executions because these events are violent and psychologically disturbing. Television, movies, graphic novels, video games and music – the cultural world young people inhabit – is replete with violence.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of U.S. adults support the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, down from 78 percent in 1996. The survey found that 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 64 percent of white mainline Protestants and 59 percent of white Catholics express support for the death penalty. Only 33 percent of black Protestants and 37 percent of Hispanic Catholics approve of capital punishment.

These Christians should work vigorously to translate their political-religious convictions into law and to spearhead a movement to make executions public in death penalty states. If they don’t have the stomach for deterrence-maximizing, public displays of state-sanctioned killing, then capital punishment should be abolished in this country.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


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