The recent decision by Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane of Fulton County Superior Court in Georgia, allowing the execution Andrew Grant DeYoung to be taped, has opened up another debate about public executions. In one of the few democracies left on the planet that still allows the death penalty, it is damaging and dangerous to conceal a sensitive procedure that is widely used.
The final public execution in the United States took place in 1936, with an estimated 20,000 people in attendance. Following that year, executions sharply declined in the U.S. before they were suspended from 1972 to 1976. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, the number of executions has increased dramatically. And it has all been done behind closed doors.
In a functioning and healthy democracy, citizens need to be well-informed and aware of all the government’s actions. That is why presidential debates and legislative sessions are available to the public. How can we make responsible political decisions without having access to relevant information?
The same applies to capital punishment. The U.S. is full of supporters of capital punishment who argue its economic efficiency and decisive nature. The majority of those advocates, though, have never seen the actions they are supporting. Americans are completely blind to the cruel essence of the death penalty.
Transparency and public awareness has been proven to stimulate positive change. The historic uprisings in the Middle East didn’t take place until the horrific actions of oppressive regimes were broadcasted on Facebook and YouTube.
The only four countries who executed more people in 2010 than the U.S. are Yemen, Iran, North Korea, and China. The U.S. has long singled out those same countries for their failure to comply with democratic principles. It seems ironic that we would imitate their behavior.
William Otis, a former chief of the appellate division at the U.S. attorney’s office, argues that public executions are “misleading” because they make the criminal appear to be the victim. That effect goes to the heart of the debate. If the government is making a murderer seem like a victim, what does that say about the magnitude and effectiveness of the punishment?
Nevertheless, the public’s reactions to executions should not be a justification for infringing on the right to experience the way the U.S. punishes its criminals. Viewing executions is fundamental to democracy, and if the reactions are ultimately deemed unfavorable, it should not affect that basic right, but the source of the distasteful reactions: executions.
Ultimately, public executions could strengthen support by seeming to be less troubling than anticipated, or, it could stir opposition by appearing to be barbaric. In either case, concealing punishments and blinding the public prompts uninformed decisions and undermines our democratic principles. If we choose to fight murder with murder, we should at least make everyone aware of what we are doing.
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