The federal execution of Timothy McVeigh has sparked a renewed debate over whether the death penalty should continue to be exacted in relative secrecy. As we have said on this page, we think it's time to let the nation witness this ultimate legal consequence. No legitimate news organization appears to want to push for televising this execution, though we're not sure why. Those who see a measure of vengeance in the act should not begrudge a wider stage. Those who believe in the deterrence factor ought to be pushing for a larger audience to be deterred. Opponents of the death penalty should want us to face the sentence that we all have passed (this is a federal execution). Journalists ought to be fighting for it as a news event from which they are being excluded. Instead, it was left to a company running soft-core porn Internet sites to ask the Federal Bureau of Prisons for permission to stream the May 16 execution of McVeigh. They were going to charge $1.95 and promised to use blocking software to keep children off the site. The bureau declined, leaving the government to point to the likes of VoyeurDorm.com and DudeDorm.com as the kind of people who would want to cover an execution.
But if the combination of journalists' silence and the request of voyeurs makes it more difficult to make the case for televising executions-that is, if real journalists ever get up the nerve again-a California judge's ruling has provided ammunition for their argument.
District Judge Vaughn Walker refused to allow the state to curtain off all but the injection portion of an execution from witnesses. The judge rejected the state's claims that such access might endanger the guards' carrying out the execution, or might somehow disturb the delicate bond between the prisoner and guards. (Such claims remind us of the warden who once suggested that the presence of a TV camera in the viewing room outside a gas chamber was risky because it might come crashing through the glass viewing window.) Judge Vaughn was having none of it. "The public has a keen interest in witnessing the manner by which government wields its most devastating power, the power lawfully to take a life," Walker wrote. "It should not be carried on behind closed doors." We couldn't agree more.