Executions shouldn’t be quiet
Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2016
By Sid Salter
The legislative rationale behind Senate Bill 2237 presumes falsely that the business of taking an inmate’s life as punishment for a capital crime should be easy, quiet, free from confrontation or protest, and hidden as much as possible from public view or scrutiny. That rationale is incredibly flawed.
This legislation presumes that how the state implements our harshest punishment for the most heinous crimes should be a secret ceremony conducted behind closed doors and without any accountability to the taxpayers.
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The presumption is that the taxpayers don’t deserve the right to question or challenge the means used to impose the death penalty, to know who witnesses the imposition of the death penalty, and the identity of state employees or contractors who physically impose the execution.
To be sure, this legislation is the direct result of unquestioned overt efforts by professional death penalty opponents to harass and impede the imposition of the death penalty in Mississippi and other states by putting political and public relations pressure on companies that manufacture the chemicals used in lethal injection executions.
But people have a right to aggressively, passionately oppose the death penalty, don’t they?
There have also been claims of attempts at intimidation and harassment of execution team members, although those claims have not been fully vetted or verified in a public forum. It’s been my experience that media outlets in Mississippi have not identified execution team members beyond the official spokesmen of the Mississippi Department of Corrections or the Parchman prison wardens.
One facet of the law that is more complex are efforts to safeguard the identity of family members who attend executions as witnesses.
I covered two executions in the gas chamber in the 1980s. I covered two executions by lethal injection after executions resumed under that process in 2002. From those experiences, I learned that it is one thing to discuss the death penalty in the abstract. It is quite another thing to witness the actual implementation of it.
Family witnesses — both the family of the condemned prisoner and the victim’s family — are highly emotional, vulnerable, and deserving of respect and privacy. It’s been my experience that the Department of Corrections already has procedures in place to provide that respect and privacy to those family members who desire it — and also to provide a public forum for those who wish to interact with the media and the public.
So the question then becomes, does the public have a right to know the simple identity of those who witness an execution.
The answer should be a resounding “yes.” There should be a record and there should be a public record.
I’ve heard otherwise rational Mississippians in barber shops and coffee shops discussing the death penalty and their attitudes about it. For good or ill, the majority of Mississippians continue to support imposition of the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes and they demonstrate that support at the ballot box regularly.
That majority support exists despite mounting evidence that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed on poor defendants with court-appointed legal representation than it is on more affluent defendants with a more robust private defense team — and that there are stinging racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty nationally and in the South.
For that reason, whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, the public record regarding Mississippi’s continued use of that punishment should be complete and robust. We should not make imposition of the death penalty too secret and too hidden from public view and public scrutiny.
Citizens should be confronted with the hard facts, the hard emotions, of executions. For if the state of Mississippi is going to take the life of a criminal as punishment for a heinous crime, then we as citizens must take ownership of that process and our share of responsibility for fair and reasonably humane imposition of that ultimate punishment.
Where the death penalty is concerned, out of sight and out of mind should not be acceptable. As one who has watched men die at the hands of the state of Mississippi, I can assure you that it’s an experience not lightly observed or soon forgotten.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.