Attorney General John Ashcroft has decided to permit several hundred relatives of Oklahoma City bombing victims to view Timothy McVeigh's execution on closed circuit television. At the same time, Ashcroft will permit only 10 reporters to view the event. What are the rules for who witnesses an execution?
Ashcroft is in charge of this execution since it is being imposed under federal law, the first federal execution since 1964. Most executions are imposed under state law, and thus the details of each procedure are specified by state legislatures.
Who may witness an execution?
In some states, only prison officials and relatives or friends of the condemned may view the execution. In others, prison officials are required to assemble 10 or so witnesses of their choosing, which may include reporters, relatives, or members of the public. In the majority of states, however, the warden is obliged to admit members of the press and has discretion as to other witnesses. Some of these states also require that a minister and/or the prisoner's attorney be permitted to attend. In Arkansas, reporters may not publish any detail of the execution other than the person's name, time of death, and that he was executed.
In the last decade or two, a number of states--including Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Delaware, Nevada, Ohio, and Washington--have passed laws giving victims' relatives a right to attend.
Who has broadcasting rights?
Many state statutes expressly forbid the recording or broadcasting of the event. In other states, the warden has discretion, though no warden has, to the best of Explainer's knowledge, ever honored such a request. In the early 1990s, a number of TV stations, and even Phil Donahue, sued on the theory that journalists have a First Amendment right to broadcast executions. Several prisoners have also sued to have their executions broadcast. Both journalists and prisoners have lost every time, though many academics think they have a persuasive case. The Supreme Court has never directly addressed the issue. Justice Brennan has written, however, that "today we reject public executions as debasing and brutalizing to us all." Today, both advocates of the death penalty and opponents have called for public broadcasts, either to enhance the deterrent effect of the death sentence or to stimulate public revulsion.
Was it always this way?
No. In the early days of the republic, executions were public events, as they were in England. For instance, the last public hanging in Philadelphia (of a 19-year-old in 1837) drew a crowd of 20,000. By the middle of the 19th century, however, states began to pass laws that made executions even more private than they are today, often barring reporters and the prisoner's relatives. Interestingly enough, according to Professor John Bessler's Death in the Dark, 82 percent of all American executions between 1977 and 1995 occurred from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., and half of these occurred between midnight and 1 a.m.