Closed-Circuit-TV Executions: A Step Too Far?

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Attorney General John Ashcroft toured the Oklahoma City National Memorial Site

At this point, very few questions remain concerning Timothy McVeigh's execution. He has shown no interest in filing an appeal; on May 16, wardens at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., will kill McVeigh via lethal injection.

The only question that remains is how many people will get to watch him die.

McVeigh was convicted of killing 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which tore through the city's federal building — including a day care center. Now, McVeigh, who will be the first federal prisoner executed since 1963, has just over a month to live, and many survivors of the bombing and family members of those who died are adamant: They want to see McVeigh draw his last breath.

The viewing room outside the death chamber at Terre Haute fits only about eight people, so roughly 250 other people want the feds to provide a closed-circuit television broadcast, either to a viewing room in Terre Haute or a remote site in Oklahoma City. After all, other victims' families are permitted to watch an execution if they choose — it's just the sheer number of victims in this scenario that presents a problem. But while many agree with the request in theory, the situation still presents U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft with something of an ethical conundrum: Will the U.S. government sanction the broadcast (albeit private) of an execution?

Tuesday, when Ashcroft visited Oklahoma City and met with the victims' families, he sounded as if he were seriously considering the request. The decision, Justice Department officials report, will not be made until later this week, after Ashcroft has had a chance to meet with more family members and law enforcement officials familiar with the case. DOJ insiders predict that barring some unforeseen discovery, Ashcroft will allow the closed-circuit broadcast.

McVeigh, who has rejected any move to appeal his conviction, has asked repeatedly for his execution to be broadcast nationally. While no one expects that to happen, McVeigh's entreaty and the family members' request to view the execution have focused the country's attention on the issues of crime, punishment and retribution.

If McVeigh's death is broadcast to survivors, will it establish a dangerous precedent? Brenda Bowser, communications director at the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., doesn't think so — simply because McVeigh's case is so unique. "There have been very few, if any, death penalty cases in U.S. history with so many victims," Bowser told "Thousands of people were directly affected by the Oklahoma City bombing." The sheer breadth of McVeigh's terrorism, says Bowser, makes this crime — and its punishment — different from anything else we've seen.

But will watching McVeigh die actually make survivors feel any better? Bowser points out that while no concrete studies have been conducted analyzing the psychology of victims and the death penalty, people deal with tragedy differently. "For some, watching McVeigh die will finally bring some kind of closure to their loss," Bowser says. "For others, the execution may be a real roadblock on their path to recovery."