McVeigh's death next week raises questions, specter of past events

Should executions be public?

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2001

When Timothy McVeigh falls unconscious, his breath fades and his heart slams to a stop, more than 200 people will likely be watching, the biggest audience for an American execution since the last public hangings in the midst of the Depression.

The era of public executions in the United States sputtered to a halt after 20,000 turned out for the 1936 hanging of a black man convicted of raping and killing a white woman in Owensboro, Ky.

''They were a disgrace,'' said Hugo Bedau, a Tufts University philosophy professor emeritus and death penalty historian. But now the Wednesday punishment for McVeigh has become ''quasi-public,'' Bedau said, with a live, closed-circuit television viewing for the survivors and relatives of those caught in the Oklahoma City bombing.

''A live death so to speak, it just crosses lines of decency,'' said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Resource Center. ''It's not something that can be controlled once it's out there.''

Not that the federal government isn't taking precautions. About 30 people will witness the execution in person; security is aiming to prevent hackers from stealing the signal that will be sent from the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., to the other viewers in Oklahoma City.

And McVeigh, all acknowledge, is unique. The nation's deadliest domestic terrorist, he is still unrepentant for the bombing that killed 168 and injured 700.

''It's one of those cases that test people's core beliefs,'' said Louis Masur, a death penalty historian at City University of New York.

Federal officials said they will make seats available for all victims and relatives who register for the closed-circuit broadcast, and are expecting a few hundred. About 285 had earlier said they wanted to view the execution, though the U.S Attorney's office has names of about 3,000 on file.

The large audience has added to the discussion surrounding McVeigh's execution. While the federal government is taking pains to ensure the event is seen by a limited group, a capital punishment supporter said that a national broadcast could be justified.

''If the (criminal is) heinous enough, they should suffer and be punished, and people will find that satisfying to see justice done,'' said Louis Pojman, a West Point philosophy professor. ''If it were put forth to be shown on C-Span or CNN, I wouldn't vote against that.''

McVeigh himself argued, in a letter to The Sunday Oklahoman, that since his death is to be viewed beyond the Terre Haute prison walls, it is unfair to limit the audience.

McVeigh wrote that ''a reasonable solution seems obvious: hold a true public execution -- allow a public broadcast.'' Prison officials said they never considered the idea.

Yet public executions were once the way capital punishment was carried out in every state, the climax of a public ritual that included a sermon and the condemned's last words from the scaffold, said Masur, author of ''Rites of Execution,'' a history of the death penalty.

For the government, it was a message of law and order. ''From the point of view of the crowd it's another story,'' he said. ''For the vast majority, it was a day of revelry, it was a spectacle, something to witness.''

But beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, as observers and leaders argued against the unseemly attention, states in the Northeast and Midwest began to pass laws forcing the execution behind prison walls, Masur said.

The South and West were slower to go along, with the final public execution a full century later. By the time Rainey Bethea was hanged on Aug. 14, 1936, the event horrified -- and riveted -- the nation. The Chicago American criticized the scene, running a banner headline that read "20,000 'Have A Good Time' As Law Hangs A Slayer.''

Bedau, the Tufts professor, said the McVeigh execution is the latest in a series of steps, including ''three strikes and you're out'' laws and the elimination of parole for some crimes, that could lead back to public executions.

''There is a kind of perverse logic to this whole thing,'' he said.

n n n n n

On the Net:

n Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

n Pro-death penalty group: Justice for All: http://www.jfa.net



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