Wheel of Death

By the

May 3, 2001

Since 1963, there has not been a single execution of a federally-convicted death-row inmate. The scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh on May 16 in Terre Haute, Ind., however, will break that streak. Without even addressing arguments for or against capital punishment, the administration of McVeigh’s sentence is generating an inordinate amount of controversy.

Federal regulations deem that the procedure followed for each individual execution follow the legislative guidelines of the state in which the execution is to take place. In McVeigh’s case, this means death by lethal injection with eight witnesses who are either victims of his crimes or direct relations of deceased victims. Attorney General John Ashcroft originally agreed to amend these specifications and allow for 10 witnesses due to the uncommon nature of McVeigh’s crime.

Taking his exceptions, further, Ashcroft also announced the execution would be made available to more witnesses by means of a closed-circuit telecast. The 285 additional witnesses will view McVeigh’s death from an unidentified Oklahoma City location, and the FBI plans to use encryption software similar to what was successfully implemented during McVeigh’s trial to prevent outside sources from gaining access to the transmission. The 10 witnesses present in the viewing room adjacent to the execution chamber will be chosen from the 285 by a lottery drawing.

We must question the interest so many have in watching a man draw his last breath. The issue of closure aside, the painfully obvious fact is that McVeigh’s life will end on May 16 regardless of whether 285 people sit watching it. As responsible citizens we must also take issue with the word “lottery” to describe the witness-selection process. Is winning the chance to watch a man die in the next room as coveted a prize as, say, $11 million?

McVeigh’s pending execution has generated a veritable media circus even before it’s been carried out. The media have given coverage to everything from the message his father wrote him in a recent birthday card to a letter McVeigh wrote to a vegetarian group a few weeks ago. These bits of information are not even tucked away in the oft-forgotten inner pages of news publications but instead masqueraded as important news stories and given prominent positions. Some may argue that the media are simply giving the public the information that it desires, but a higher standard must be expected of journalists.

The decision to open McVeigh’s execution to a larger witness pool via closed-circuit telecast and the spectacle that has already been made by the media harken back to the days of public executions and the bloodlust that accompanied them. The removal of capital punishment from mass viewing was an attempt to draw attention away from convicted criminals for fear they would be glorified or that their executions would become the sort of public exhibition that has developed around McVeigh. Capital punishment was moved to a more private arena for a reason, and those grounds must be honored no matter what the circumstances surrounding a specific case may be. With his decision to allow the telecast, Ashcroft may have been the one to drop the ball this time, but no one else seems to have made a move to catch it.

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