Death Penalty

An undated file photo from Virginia Department of Corrections, showing the gurney used for executions at the Greensville Corrections Center in Jarratt.

In September , four media outlets — including the Richmond Times-Dispatch — filed a lawsuit in federal court, challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections’ execution protocols. Specifically, the lawsuit asserts that VDOC procedures mandating curtains to shield official witnesses from viewing the condemned man strapped to the gurney and insertion of lethal injection IVs are unconstitutional. “The First Amendment…guarantees the public an affirmative right of access to certain government proceedings, including a right to witness the entirety of executions carried out by the government,” the complaint asserts. It further argues that the denial of such a right prevents citizens from fully understanding how Virginia executes its prisoners — and if these executions are ever botched. The attorney general’s office opposes the lawsuit, claiming in a dismissal motion that it could lead to states being “compelled to broadcast executions for public viewing.”

This is not the first time Virginia’s execution protocols involving public access to executions have been challenged. In June 1990, death row inmate Joseph Savino petitioned then-Gov. Douglas Wilder to televise his execution — arguing that the broadcast would both deter others from committing similar crimes, as well as trigger a public debate about the death penalty itself. “As it is, they do it in the middle of the night in the basement in some corner of the prison so selected people see it and the next morning you want to read if the guy had last words,” Savino explained in an interview: “You just read that he was killed. It’s kind of ho-hum.” Savino’s appeal to the governor, however, was quickly denied. Clearly the spectacle of an electrocution in living color was too much for Virginia officials to contemplate.

While the current federal lawsuit does not ask that executions be broadcast, one might ask whether Savino — who was executed on July 17, 1996 — had the better idea. Why not broadcast executions for public viewing? Most supporters of capital punishment argue that executions deter criminals. Yet isn’t this deterrent effect diminished when executions are carried out at remote locations during the evening, hidden away behind concrete walls and razor wire? Wouldn’t a live feed of the state killing one of its citizens be more likely to scare future criminals and lower crime rates?

But it’s often death penalty supporters who blanch at the idea of public executions, dismissing such ideas as barbaric and crude. We can kill, but it must be discrete and behind closed doors. One wonders, however, whether proponents of capital punishment are less concerned about the tastelessness of a public broadcast and more worried that support for the death penalty might continue to drop if citizens saw the reality of state-sanctioned executions. Seeing human beings put down like old dogs isn’t for the faint of heart. Nor is it good for politicians who support a policy grounded on the idea that the state should kill to show that killing is wrong.

Justice Anthony Kennedy once urged citizens to take a greater interest in what occurs in the American penal system. “The subject is the concern and responsibility…of every citizen,” he said in a speech to the American Bar Association. “This is your justice system; these are your prisons…[W]e should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away.” Perhaps Virginia should heed Justice Kennedy’s words. Instead of fighting over whether a small group of witnesses should be able to watch an inmate prepped for execution, why not shine a light on the entire execution process? Let’s watch the final walk into the death chamber. Let’s see if the condemned man shakes as he is tied to the gurney. Let’s listen to his final words. Let’s observe his final breath. And then let’s ask ourselves if we still support state-sanctioned killing.

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Todd C. Peppers is a professor at Roanoke College and the co-author of two books on the death penalty. Contact him at: peppers@roanoke.edu

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