Does public have a right to watch?

McVeigh debate may have brought US closer to televised executions.

When Ruth Snyder was executed at Sing Sing prison in 1928, an industrious reporter sneaked in a camera by strapping it to his leg and caught the moment on film.

Ms. Snyder was the tabloid sensation of her decade - she and her lover murdered her husband - and the New York Daily News could hardly keep up with the demand when the photo of her in the electric chair appeared on the front page the next day.

That feat is not likely to be repeated in modern times, when reporters are searched before entering the witness box - as they were in Terre Haute, Ind., yesterday for Timothy McVeigh's execution. Of more concern there was the encrypted closed-circuit TV feed watched by survivors and victims' families in Oklahoma City, which was considered a target for hackers.

But even if images of Mr. McVeigh's final moments are never seen, his high-profile case has brought new vigor to the debate over televised executions. The convicted bomber's request for the event to be broadcast was dismissed long ago, but it helped kindle a discussion that invokes everything from the First Amendment to the impact of reality TV.

Driving the debate is increased scrutiny of the death penalty and an environment in which the death chamber is one of the few things still off limits to the media. The convergence of these issues has made the question of televising an execution one that is no longer verboten to ask. "We're going to see this whole subject propelled into greater discussion than it has before," says Hugo Adam Bedau, editor of the book "The Death Penalty in America."

Along with the argument that the public has a right to see a fatal action being carried out in its name is the fact that so much death is already available on TV.

TV news programs dance around it, showing everything but a criminal's final moments. Viewers often witness fatal accidents on the nightly news. In 1999, "60 Minutes" aired an assisted suicide performed by Jack Kevorkian, which producers have said was done to prompt discussion about euthanasia.

That, says Neal Gabler, is how an execution will get on the air - in the name of a moral debate on the death penalty. "The bottom line is broadcasters want to get this on the air, and they'll use any argument," says the author of "Life: The Movie." "It's inevitable that it's going to happen."

Journalists had an opportunity to test their convictions in May, when audiotapes of executions were aired for the first time on "Nightline" and some public-radio stations. Georgia prison officials narrated the executions from the 1980s in a clinical manner, and prisoners were not heard unless they had last words. "The first reaction before anybody had heard them was, 'Is this something we want to be doing?' " says Richard Harris, a senior producer at "Nightline."

The program ultimately decided that the tapes weren't sensational and the crimes were far enough in the past not to offend victims' families. Mr. Harris says the death penalty is one of the most controversial issues Americans face, and "these tapes could be ammunition for both sides."

Live executions could have the same effect - either leaving people repulsed or, particularly in cases of lethal injection such as McVeigh's, not leaving much of an impression at all.

"We are so used to seeing bloody and gory graphic details of violence - especially in R-rated movies - that this would be easy for most Americans to take," says Jack Levin, head of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Boston's Northeastern University.

Professor Levin opposes both the death penalty and broadcasting executions. "If it's televised ... it will look so civilized and lacking in brutality it might very well produce some support for the death penalty that might not otherwise have been there."

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s, a handful of attempts has been made by media organizations to film executions, including one by former talk-show host Phil Donahue. Journalists are allowed to witness and write what they see - but some scribes in favor of televising executions point out that the First Amendment doesn't indicate what medium should be used when reporters do their job.

Courts have denied visual coverage of executions for a number of reasons, including privacy of the condemned, concerns about how inmates will react if they are allowed to watch, and security in the execution chamber.

Florida-based Entertainment Network Inc. was turned down most recently. The company planned to charge several dollars to download the McVeigh execution on the Web. The proceeds would have gone to charity.

If ENI had prevailed, it would have been the first time the public had witnessed an execution since the 1930s. Twenty-thousand people showed up to see one of the last ones in 1936 in Owensboro, Ky. But the act of putting someone to death has become increasingly private since then.

That's what concerns some First Amendment supporters, who say the public should be able to witness the effects of a policy it supports. In a recent Gallup study, 81 percent said they believed McVeigh should be executed, but only 23 percent said they would watch if it were shown on TV.

Richard Sherwin, a professor at the New York School of Law, says it's ironic that the First Amendment protects fictional violence but doesn't seem to apply to the real thing. "I don't know which way it would cut politically if people were allowed to watch," he says. "In a democracy where we govern ourselves, if the state is going to exercise lethal force in our name, we have a right to witness that violence."

This issue is part of increased discussion about the death penalty by people on both sides, he says. With states now declaring moratoriums on the practice, and with modern advances like DNA testing proving that some on death row are innocent, he says people are asking more questions.

Still, Dr. Sherwin, author of "When Law Goes Pop," says, "pragmatically, I don't think we're that close to seeing it happen."

Some cable channels say they would not broadcast an execution even if they could. "We feel we can better cover this and give it the context it needs in other ways," says Art Bell, an executive at CourtTV. Live execution "has the capacity to stun, to repulse, to sort of stop the conversation."

No matter how it aired, Gabler says people would watch for the same reason they scooped up copies of the New York Daily News. "There was no public need to see that," he says of the Snyder photo. "There was a desire to see it, not a need to see it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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