NOT since 1937, when 500 people watched the state hang a man in Galena, Mo., has there been a public execution in the United States. Now a push is under way in California to allow the televising of executions in the San Quentin state prison - a move that would bring society's harshest punishment into living rooms.
The case raises broad questions of press rights, privacy, and taste. It divides journalists, draws conflicting opinions from advocates and opponents of the death penalty, and stirs complex emotions in a society that has wrestled since the 1700s over how public the ultimate sanction should be.
* ``The message it would send is that life is cheap and that this is entertainment,'' says Gerald Uelmen, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law.
* ``If the death penalty is such a high moral thing to do, then we should be able to look at it,'' says Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the capital punishment project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
* It would ``provide a much-needed test of the deterrent effect of capital punishment,'' says Richard Moran, a criminologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Public TV station sues
The dispute stems from a lawsuit brought by public television station KQED in San Francisco against the warden of San Quentin, seeking the right to broadcast ``live'' from the execution room. The station filed the suit a year ago, when it appeared as though California's first execution in 24 years was about to be held. It was put off, although one could occur by the end of this year.
KQED holds that the state has no business arbitrarily deciding which reporters can cover an execution or what tools they can use - that, just as print reporters have traditionally used paper and pen, broadcast journalists should be allowed to bring in cameras.
KQED news director Michael Schwarz contends that television is the only ``neutral witness,'' since accounts are not filtered through a reporter.
The state counters that the press has no special right of access to something the general public is not allowed to attend. It also argues that the television cameras would risk identifying - and thus endangering the safety of - prison staff and witnesses involved in the execution.
The state also argues that television coverage could incite a prison riot, since inmates would be able to tune in to the execution.
KQED, however, says that the faces of individuals could be electronically masked and that the threat of a prison revolt is overblown.
After the trial began, San Quentin Warden Daniel Vasquez decided that, rather than having a federal judge set the rules and risk ``forfeiting control, he would bar all reporters, print and electronic, from future executions.
Thus, KQED returned to federal court last week to argue the general question of access. The station asserted its contention that the press has a constitutional right to attend executions, and historically has exercized that right.
The state is confident of its right to bar reporters and cameras. ``The law is rock solid in our favor,'' says Karl Mayer, a deputy state attorney general.
``The general public doesn't have an entitlement to go in and watch an execution,'' Mr. Mayer adds, ``and the press has no greater right than the public.''
Beyond whether television will be allowed into the execution room - which some legal scholars doubt the courts will agree to - is the question of whether they should. Criminologists, including Mount Holyoke's Moran, argue that it would spark a national debate on capital punishment and help determine whether the death penalty deters crime. His reasoning: Since 1976, when the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, 143 people have been put to death in the US with scant attention given most by the press. Executing people in private, he argues, has robbed the ceremony of any deterrent value.
`Remote and irrelevant'
Others disagree. Hugo Bedau, a death-penalty expert at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., says televising the event would be ``utterly remote and irrelevant.'' The two kinds people likely to commit a capital crime, he says, are the psychopath, who is beyond reach, and the rational calculator, who believes he or she can get away with the crime.
What good would a televised execution do? ``Nothing would be gained except entertainment and information provided in a perfunctory way,'' says Mr. Bedau.
To Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, televising an execution is a ``terrible idea for the simple reason that television is what kids watch.''
The idea - which is also being debated in the state legislature - divides activists on both sides of the capital-punishment issue. Some abolitionists believe broadcasting executions would add to the ``brutalization'' of society. But others, such as the ACLU and Death Penalty Focus, a California anti-death penalty group, say let the cameras roll, provided the condemned agrees.
``Once people see what their tax dollars are doing, they will not be in support of it,'' says Michael Bauman of Death Penalty Focus.
Some capital-punishment supporters fear televising an execution would create sympathy for the condemned.
KQED's Schwarz says, ``Capital punishment raises some of the most important questions we face as a society.'' To understand them, ``we need to look at the crime and the punishment.''
Jeff Wald, head of news programming at Channel 13, an independent TV station in Los Angeles, says the media should have the right to broadcast, but he has qualms: ``I don't think anything positive comes out of broadcasting such an event.''
``It's a hard question,'' says Fred Friendly, director of Columbia University's seminars on media and society. ``I am not sure very many would carry it.''