Andrew DeYoung, a man convicted in the 1993 murders of his parents and 14-year-old sister, was executed by lethal injection late last week. His death was unusual because it was the first execution to be videotaped in almost 20 years, raising questions about privacy, the potential for sensationalism and transparency in the criminal justice system.
The backstory is somewhat complicated, and involves attorneys for another death-row inmate, Gregory Walker, who claim that lethal injections, as they are typically conducted, cause needless suffering. Videotaping DeYoung’s execution, they argued, could “eliminate any dispute as to what transpires in the next lethal injection.” Much of the concern revolves around eyewitness accounts of the June execution of Roy Blankenship, who apparently responded violently to the lethal injection.
Gregory’s lawyers said they wanted to make sure that no executions were botched in the future. They also expressed concern about the use of pentobarbitol, a drug which was first used to execute Blankenship. Pentobarbitol is typically used to euthanize animals and advocates for death row inmates are concerned that the drug causes intense, unnecessary pain.
Recording executions, however, raises the unavoidable question of what would happen if the videos were leaked, even though they are expressly not for public viewing. ”I think it would be foolish for anybody who is authorizing or supervising the videotaping of executions to assume that it will always remain sealed and unseen,” Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, commented on his blog, according to the New York Times. ”Somewhere, somehow, at some point, this will become publicly accessible.”
Executions were, in the past, highly public events. The last public hanging in the United States happened as late as 1936, in front of a crowd of 20,000 people. And even now, other countries (most recently, Iran) post videos of public executions online, often to intense criticism from human rights groups. An Amnesty International official denounced the culture of public executions in Iran:
“Not only those executed, but all those who watch public executions, including, children, are brutalised and degraded by the experience. These public displays of killing perpetuate a culture of acceptance of violence and bloodlust, rather than a belief in justice.”
Others, like Berman, argue that videotaping and making execution videos public can provide a kind of transparency in a secretive criminal justice system, where human rights abuses (like unnecessary pain and suffering) go unscrutinized.
It’s interesting that none of these pieces bring up the issue of the executed prisoner’s consent. Was DeYoung consulted about the decision to preserve the last minutes of his life? If he wasn’t, should he have been? Videos of deaths undoubtedly have intense power – think about Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman whose death became an online symbol of the 2009 Iran protests — and videotaping prisoners’ executions is no less fraught. Ultimately, these videos are a double-edged sword: they could either bring the horrific fact that capital punishment is still alive and well in the United States into sharper relief, and perhaps galvanize support for ending the death penalty, or they could make execution seem routine.
What do you think? Should inmates give permission for their deaths to be recorded? And should these recordings be performed in the first place?
Photo from World Coalition Against the Death Penalty via flickr.