Skip to main content

It's time to televise executions

By Richard Gabriel
May 11, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT