Killing the killer is just, so long as it's out of sight


January 11, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Why were we denied the opportunity to see Westley Allan Dodd hanged?

Why was the moment when he fell through the trap doors of the gallows last Tuesday in the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, Wash., not shown on TV?

It occurred at five minutes past midnight local time, five minutes past 3 a.m. Eastern time. Small children would not have been watching.

Nor was it a strictly private moment: Witnesses were invited in to view the execution.

So why couldn't the entire public have seen Dodd's last moments?

We certainly saw enough of him in the days leading up to his execution. I saw him on TV so much, I figured they were either going to have to hang the guy or give him his own talk show.

There was virtually nothing we were not allowed to know about Dodd's life:

How he was a serial child killer who raped and strangled young boys.

How he kept diaries revealing violent sexual fantasies about murdering more children.

And how one detective who gave seminars on Dodd reported that, "We have had law-enforcement officers faint, get sick and leave the room when we read portions of the diaries."

Westley Allan Dodd (notorious killers always get their middle names used) wanted to be hanged, but the American Civil Liberties Union objected.

Hanging, the group said, was "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore forbidden under the Eighth Amendment.

The Founding Fathers almost certainly would not have found hanging cruel and unusual. They wanted to forbid punishments like drawing and quartering.

But the Eighth Amendment embodies a maturing concept. It changes as societal standards change.

Take firing squads. Gary Gilmore, who killed a young hotel manager in Provo, Utah, was executed in 1977 by firing squad. It was his choice. He told the court he wanted to "die like a man."

Today, however, the Supreme Court might find a firing squad cruel and unusual punishment. Human beings are very strange when it comes to methods of death.

In World War I, poison gas was used by both sides. The public was so horrified, however, that in World War II neither side used it in combat.

The use of the atomic bomb by the United States in World War II

was extremely controversial then and now. A number of scientists who developed the bomb sent a petition to President Truman asking him not to use it.

Yet, while all the controversy was swirling over the use of the A-bomb, hundreds of B-29s were dropping incendiary bombs on Tokyo.

In one fire raid on March 9-10, 1945, 100,000 people were killed and, it was reported, "bomber crews in the last wave of the attack could smell burning flesh."

The Hiroshima atom bomb killed about 80,000 people instantly and about 50,000 to 60,000 over the next several weeks.

So in terms of the numbers of people who were killed, the atomic bomb was not all that different than ordinary bombs.

Still, it made a difference. In a way we can understand, though not fully explain, the particular method we use for killing others does make a difference to us.

In America today, lethal injection is considered the most humane form of execution.

Dodd, however, had a fear of needles and his lawyer argued that to use lethal injection on him would be cruel and unusual punishment.

And so we hanged Dodd. Late at night. And away from public view.

Sixteen witnesses watched from behind a window. "There was no squirming, no kicking, no nothing," one witness reported.

So why weren't we all allowed to see it?

Even if the sight would have deterred just one person from murder, wouldn't that have been worth it?

But executions are not public in our modern, civilized society. We carry them out in the dead of night, behind high walls.

And we do so, I believe, because some indefinable human part of us is vaguely ashamed of what we are doing.

Oh, I know that Dodd was garbage who deserved to die. After all, he killed.

And so we killed him.

You can see the difference.

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