Kill Him on TV

If two-thirds of us say we favor the death penalty, let's take a look
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I want to see Scott Peterson die.

Don't misunderstand: I don't want him dead, despite his conviction for the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son. Too many innocent souls have landed on Death Row through the years for me to endorse capital punishment.

Not everyone shares my disdain for the death penalty. It's on the books in 38 states, and 66% of Americans still give it the thumbs up, according to Gallup polls.

Regardless, body counts shouldn't be abstractions, flicked away like lint and banished to the subconscious. That's true for Iraq, where deaths of U.S. troops, innocent civilians and others are rising while the Pentagon, largely with media acquiescence, resists exposing these bodies to public view, as if Americans should not witness the human cost of a war most of them support.

And it's true for executions.

So televise them. I want to see for myself, not just hear from others, what it's like when government ends a life. That would be a reality show.

Details would have to be worked out, but try this:

Executions would be videotaped and telecast late at night, beyond normal viewing hours of young children. They would be tightly structured. Attention would be given to the crimes and victims and their loved ones, with no softening of pain. There would be no glorifying eulogies or metaphorical walks into a sunset for doomed inmates. Each condemned person would have limited time for final remarks. And if there were expletives, not to worry, FCC; they'd be bleeped.

Peterson's death penalty must still be formalized by the judge in the case. Moreover, the appeals process should keep him on California's Death Row for years.

If he is executed, watching won't be pleasant. I can take it, though, and you can, too. We're veterans of death on TV, after all, from Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 to an armed motorist blowing away half his face on a Los Angeles freeway in 1998. As Matt Roush noted in this magazine recently, TV crime dramas now serve a “forensic feast of splatter analysis and body-cavity voyeurism.”

If the TV lens is our designated peeper—from fictional CSI to gratuitous “gotcha” footage on newscasts—then have it count for something beyond frivolous diversion.

Would televising executions change minds? Possibly. How much sooner, for example, would Florida have switched to lethal injections, as it did in 2000, if its electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky,” had been shown torching men like Roman candles as it killed them?

Televising executions might even completely turn around death-penalty advocates, although just as likely it would desensitize them to the process.

In any case, enlightenment, not grisly titillation, would be the goal. At last, Americans would gain visual access to public policy whose full extent reaches them now only through the thick filters of Hollywood and a handful of reporters designated as eyewitnesses. Sean Penn was chillingly persuasive when meeting the big needle in Dead Man Walking, observed by Susan Sarandon as his pious pen pal. But actual executions aren't scenes that end with “Cut!”

Democracies are meant to operate in the open. If there is nothing to hide, if Americans truly dislike government in shadows, they shouldn't oppose TV cameras inside state killing rooms. Nor, for the same reason, should pro-choicers resist telecasts of legal abortions.

It's true that we sanction many things without desiring to witness them. We approve surgery, for one, but are too queasy to watch it. Also, meat eaters haven't the stomach to peek inside a slaughterhouse, even through a TV lens.

The difference is that government doesn't ban cameras from these venues, which are televised on occasion. Government does ban cameras from executions.

Dead issue walking? I hope not.

Televised executions were my crusade long before 2001, when Attorney General John Ashcroft made an exception and approved the closed-circuit telecast of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's death by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Ind. He did so to accommodate nearly 300 surviving victims and family members who wanted to watch.

I applauded Ashcroft, thinking that seeing McVeigh die might bring those folks peace or closure. But when I requested a seat myself at the closed-circuit telecast, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons rejected me because I wasn't a bombing survivor or victim's relative.

If McVeigh's execution was fit viewing for them, why not for the rest of us? If they had earned this opportunity, why hadn't all Americans, many of whom also bore emotional scars from the bombing?

In 1998, since-imprisoned Dr. Jack Kevorkian was shown giving a lethal injection to someone with advanced Lou Gehrig's disease in a 60 Minutes segment that tackled mercy killing. Similarly, televising executions would sharpen dialogue about the death penalty, in the news increasingly now because of the potential of enhanced DNA to either affirm or disprove guilt.

This would not foster a return to an earlier age of public hangings and beheadings, when executions were viewed as family entertainment.

Would televised executions be tasteless, though? I imagine—just as they are when occurring beyond public view.

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