Executions are Not for Prime Time

Posted: May 01, 2001 12:00 AM
"Have you had any sleep?" That's the question reporters who have witnessed executions asked me after I witnessed the lethal injection of double-killer Robert Lee Massie in March. The fact is, I didn't sleep much for days. The first night, I got two hours sleep, max. After three nights, I had logged less than 12 hours sleep. The odd part is that I wasn't wired because of what I saw. Execution veterans told me what would happen. They said the execution would seem, if anything, clinical. (I wrongly thought they were downplaying what happened. That I would feel more than they did.) They said that the inmate likely would show no emotion. That's what I saw as Massie entered the chamber and was strapped onto a gurney. He showed no emotion, no fear, no remorse, as he walked to his death. He had waived the right to all of his appeals in order to expedite his final punishment, and he went with a demeanor that was mildly curious and helpful. His execution was eerily mechanical. His death was painless, welcome ... and deserved. Thus, I lost sleep not because of what I saw, but because of the fact of what I saw. I saw the state kill a killer. It didn't look like my idea of how an execution would look, but I saw a man die. Nothing I saw shook my belief in the capital punishment. What I saw, however, did convince me that it would be wrong to televise the May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Or any execution, for that matter. For one thing, McVeigh wants his execution to be televised. He wrote in February that his death should be broadcast because of the "fundamental equal access concerns" of victims' families who want to watch him die. Of course, his idea of fundamental equal access is: Some 80 people died in Waco after a government raid, so kill twice as many innocent people in a government building. Please. McVeigh's handiwork killed some 168 people, 19 of them children. The truth is, McVeigh craves attention and wants to style himself a martyr. Oklahomans died so that he could make a muted (he would have preferred not to have been caught) statement about the Waco disaster. Give this exhibitionist killer the publicity he craves, and that sends the wrong message to the other sickos out there. Secondly, television will distort the import of what is happening. If an execution can seem almost peaceful to a witness, imagine how bloodless it would appear through the lens of the TV camera. A long shot of a stony face meeting a painless death might lead many viewers to believe that because the means are so sterile, the end is less consequential. Rather than turning the public against capital punishment, as some death penalty opponents anticipate, an execution broadcast is likely to make people more inclined to support it. And that's not right. Support the death penalty because it is just, not because a new method has eliminated the uncosmetic convulsions of the gas chamber or the searing of the electric chair. Then there's the danger that some news operation would try to turn executions into entertainment. If TV could do it with a murder trial, why not an execution? The need for ratings eventually could trump the need to respect the solemnity of the occasion. Fact is, very few people who watch a sterile lethal injection procedure on television are going to lose any sleep. That's not as it should be. Death should never be trivial.