Skip to main content

It's time to televise executions

By Richard Gabriel
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sun May 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Gabriel: Recent failed execution makes the case against death penalty
  • The last public execution in the United States was in 1936, witnessed by 20,000 people
  • Gabriel says he believes there is no humane way to kill another person
  • We should be willing, he says, to live with the byproducts of our retribution

Editor's note: Richard Gabriel is a Los Angeles-based trial consultant and author of the upcoming book "Acquittal: An Insider Reveals the Stories and Strategies Behind Today's Most Infamous Verdicts." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Last week in McAlester, Oklahoma, the blinds were raised in a small, white, antiseptic room, and two small groups of people watched as Clayton Lockett was strapped to a gurney.

A doctor examined Lockett's body for usable veins and then oversaw the administration of an untested drug cocktail that was supposed to dispatch the convicted murderer quickly and quietly. Instead, the blinds were lowered as the execution turned into more than 40 minutes of grimacing, writhing, teeth grinding and frantic phone calls. Then Lockett's heart finally seized, stopped beating, and his breath left his body.

This is how we kill our most serious criminals in the 21st century. Or at least try to. So if this is justice, let's make it real. Let's make it open to the highest form of public transparency and scrutiny: Live TV. Here's why.

Oklahoma's botched lethal injection marks new front in battle over executions

Richard Gabriel
Richard Gabriel

In the Middle Ages, the preferred method of executing prisoners was to draw and quarter, burn, boil alive and separate body parts of the condemned, exacting a measure of slow and painful torture before death. At some point in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, society decided that executing prisoners more quickly would be more "humane."

The French invented the guillotine, the Shah of Persia introduced throat cutting, or would tie a prisoner to a cannon and blow him apart, and the British developed the "long drop" method of hanging to snap the neck and sever the spine of the executed.

In 1936, the last public execution in the United States was held in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was witnessed by more than 20,000 people, including hundreds of reporters. From that point forward, states decided that executions needed to be private affairs, held in small rooms and witnessed only by agents of the state, lawyers, family members of the victim and a handful of journalists.

Drug shortage complicates executions
Attorney details botched execution
Inmate dies after botched execution

In the years since Owensboro, the states -- with the approval of the U.S. Supreme Court -- have refined their definition of humane executions by utilizing firing squads, electric chairs and gas chambers. The states further sanitized the execution process by developing the lethal injection method, turning it into a medical procedure complete with operating table, intravenous injections and considerable ethical questions for doctors and pharmaceutical companies who have sworn to "do no harm."

None of these refinements in execution technology has anything to do with "humane" methods. There is no real measurement for how painful a death prisoners suffer when they are being hanged, shot, gassed or electrocuted, no matter how quickly they die. Lethal injection simply gives us greater psychological distance from killing another human being, making it feel more like a doctor-prescribed procedure than an execution.

Michael Wilson, another death row inmate in Oklahoma, was killed in January in the same chamber, uttering his final words, "I feel my whole body burning." And while many have used the word "botched" to describe Lockett's execution, it wasn't botched at all. That's just how messy, complicated and disturbing it is to kill another human being.

What is missing from the death penalty debate is that there is no humane way to kill another person. We consider taking a victim's life during a crime to be cruel and unusual, yet we neatly sidestep this same Eighth Amendment standard with prisoners by attempting to conduct a quick and "painless" execution.

President Barack Obama has called for a Department of Justice investigation into the death penalty following Lockett's execution. "In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems -- racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence," Obama said. "And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied."

But while I applaud the President's actions, the question is not how the death penalty is applied, but whether it should be applied at all.

It is natural to be both horrified and angered at the senseless and brutal killings committed by a convicted murderer. It is natural to want revenge -- to visit the pain we imagine the victim suffered onto his or her perpetrator. But there is a difference between punishment and revenge, no matter how we dress it up with legislation and legal procedures. We have built a system of laws to raise us above those we judge.

In this system we have built, we must be honest and ask ourselves, "Is vengeance justice?" If we want truly to codify revenge, let's not pretend. Let's admit that we are willing to live with the byproducts of our retribution. Let's admit that we are willing to kill a number of innocent people. Let's admit that it is fine to execute a disproportionate number of minorities. And let's admit that we want condemned murderers to suffer like they made their victims suffer. Let's not dress the execution up as a medical procedure.

And by all means, let's televise it. Let's watch them pump the drugs into a condemned man or woman, strapped to a gurney. Let's hear their last words. Let's watch them writhe and twitch, or listen as they groan and their last breath quietly leaves their body. Let's watch them die. Let us see what we are really choosing when we vote to implement the death penalty in our state.

Many Americans support the death penalty in principle. But, as a juror in a capital case, it is different when you look across that courtroom and stare into the eyes of the accused. At that point it is real, and not just a principle. You will decide whether that person dies.

Let's make the death penalty real. Let's open the blinds and stare into the eyes of those we condemn to death. Let's be honest about what the death penalty really is. And then we can choose what kind of society we really want to be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT