Bowling for Capital Punishment: Why Is It a Crime to Photograph an Execution?

Paul S. Leighton, Eastern Michigan University

COPS, CSI and Court-TV are ubiquitous, but there's no genre involving penology -- a surprising absence given widespread punitiveness and interest in 'reality' programming. The series 'Survivor' had good ratings from drama about who would be voted off the island, but no programs involving which potentially innocent inmates will be executed and which the judges will vote off death row. More powerful still might be to televise executions, an idea some support based on deterrence -- call it Scared Straight Extreme TV. But even President Bush, who presidened over 150 Texas executions, balked at the chance to televise McVeigh's legal injection as punishment for terrorism of Oklahoma City. The execution was broadcast to an auditorium of survivors in Oklahoma City, but could not be videotaped because of laws prohibiting photographic recording of executions. A judge further denied the wider public an ability to see the execution webcast, citing concern about the government's interest in "preserving the solemnity of executions" and "inmates may well see the execution as 'sport' which dehumanizes them." This paper critically examines issues arising out of this one and future problem, including the Marshall hypothesis, named after a conjecture by the late Supreme Court Justice that a fully informed public would oppose capital punishment.

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Updated 05/20/2006