Witnesses for the Execution: Closure or Spectacle?

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Sixteen-year-old Brooks Douglass was on the floor, shot in the back, hog-tied and bound to his gagged parents, who were choking on their own blood. Two men, posing as stranded motorists, had come to their farmhouse in Okarche, Okla., asking to use the phone. Once inside, the armed men tied up Brooks and his parents, took turns trying to rape his 12-year-old sister, Leslie, then shot all four of them. Brooks helped free Leslie, who ran for a kitchen knife, while he gnawed at the ropes confining his mom and dad. By the time she returned, their parents were dead.

In 1996, 17 years later, Brooks Douglass, by now an Oklahoma state senator, stood clasping his sister's hand in a cramped, brightly lit room at the state prison. Brooks had pushed for legislation allowing crime victims to witness executions, and now he and Leslie were watching Steven Hatch, one of their parents' killers, die by lethal injection. As poison flooded Hatch's veins, Brooks and Leslie re-lived their parents' deaths. Brooks describes it as a healing experience. When Hatch died after seven minutes, Brooks says, "I was happy... Witnessing the execution was an assurance that this is over."

Now Brooks is working to give the same sense of closure to survivors of the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and to relatives of the 168 killed in the explosion. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, is scheduled to die by lethal injection May 16 at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. With seating for survivors and relatives limited to eight, a victims' group had sought to force the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to beam the execution by closed-circuit TV to an Oklahoma auditorium where they could watch en masse. Some 250 survivors and relatives say they would.

That the Prisons Bureau was contemplating the request reflects a growing willingness by officials to accommodate survivors who want to see for themselves the death penalty carried out. Since the 1980s, all 38 states with capital punishment, and the federal government, have made provisions for at least one family member of a killer's victim to look on, either in person or via a broadcast. With the court-ordered release last year of a videotape of death chamber preparations in Tennessee for Robert Glen Coe right up to the lethal injection, and with clips from the 1999 electrocution in Florida of Allen Lee Davis available on the Internet, executions are beginning to sneak into public view. McVeigh himself wants to go all the way. In a letter sent this month from his 10-foot-by-12-foot cell to the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, he wrote, "It has been said that all of Oklahoma was a victim of the bombing. Can all of Oklahoma watch?" Federal prison officials quickly denied his request.

Still, public executions — the last of which were in the 1930s in this country — have some surprising proponents. Burl Cain, the warden of Louisiana's Angola prison, thinks future killers might be deterred if they could see the fear in the eyes of condemned inmates. Groups opposing the death penalty have come down on both sides of the issue, some arguing that public views would change if people watched the act of government-sanctioned killings. In 1994, Ohio judge Anthony Calabrese ordered that the execution of double murderer Tyson Dixson be conducted publicly, should Dixson's appeals fail. "We have everything else on TV," says Calabrese. "It would be a civics lesson, albeit not a pretty one."

Many of McVeigh's victims have voiced opposition to making his death public, even if they plan to watch it themselves. "It's a certifiable example, the epitome of a narcissist, to believe the American people would be interested in his execution like he's this great hero," says Paul Heath, a Veterans Affairs psychologist who was working on the fifth floor of the building McVeigh destroyed with a truck bomb. He, and others like him, insist that executions should remain a private matter between the killers and the relatives — not public spectacles.

Charlotte Stout's experience is instructive. Last April, she attended the execution of Coe, who 21 years earlier had raped and killed her daughter Cary Ann. "I wanted to be there in case Coe, at the last minute, expressed remorse," she says. Instead, just before he died, Coe raised his head and said, "I forgive you, Charlotte Stout, for helping the state to murder me." — With reporting by Hillary Hylton/Austin and Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville.