A capital idea: Airing executions makes for killer TV

May 13, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

We're coming up fast on the big day. Unless those pesky killjoys from the ACLU (what's with these guys -- don't they recognize a trend when they see one?) find some bothersome technicality, we're officially back in the capital punishment biz sometime next week.

That's when triple-murderer John Thanos is scheduled for his final booster shot. He'll get a blast of killing juice -- some deadly mix of chemicals -- injected into his body that will make him die.

They're not giving out the exact ingredients. And, kids, please don't try this at home.

But, gosh, it's time, isn't it? These are happening days in the world of crime and punishment -- from canings in Singapore to a John Wayne Gacy farewell party in Illinois -- and why should we be missing out on the action?

There hasn't been an execution in Maryland since 1961. Well, the bleeding hearts have had their day. Now, say the faithful, it's time for good, old American vengeance, an eye for an eye, etc.

But why stop there?

Unless I'm wrong, timid state officials will whack Thanos sometime in the middle of the night or just before dawn, and in a room tucked away from view. And if it's like most executions, they'll put a hood over the guy's head, so no one sees that last moment in which life bleeds into death.

Why all the secrecy? It's like they're embarrassed or ashamed or something.

Let's bring it out in the open. I mean, let's examine why it is exactly that we're bumping off Thanos, a more than slightly nutty, unrepentant sociopath who is practically begging us to kill him.

We do it because -- I want to put this in capital letters so no one misses the point -- THE VIABLE THREAT OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT WILL DETER WOULD-BE MURDERERS.

Yes, I agree there's no actual evidence to suggest that capital punishment does anything of the sort and that there's some to suggest just the opposite. But maybe we're not going about it right.

If you want to scare the population into doing the right thing, let them see what real punishment is all about. In all its gory detail.

In olden times, punishment was extremely public. You were out there in the stocks where everyone could see that you committed adultery or spit on the sidewalk or whatever.

And, hangings were public. In fact, they were a great excuse for a party. You brought the kids and a picnic lunch.

The last American public execution was in the 1930s. Most people had come to believe the spectacle was barbaric, or at least unseemly. It was that same kind of thinking that led to

virtually every civilized country in the world banning state-sanctioned killing. Even in America, where we're not usually so squeamish, it was banned for a while.

But now that capital punishment is back in many states, the entire business may be going public again.

Phil Donahue is suing to televise the scheduled execution of one David Lawson, [See article, 3D] some slug from down in North Carolina who, while robbing a house, shot the occupants -- a son and then the father. The father didn't die and fingered Lawson.

That was 1980. Now, 14 years after the fact, he's scheduled to go, and he'd like everyone to watch. That's why he got in touch with Donahue.

Lawson's thinking is that if people see an actual execution, they'll be so repulsed they'll turn away from capital punishment. In fact, to help things along, if he can get his execution televised, he plans to forgo the lethal-injection route and go for the gas chamber, where the guy on the wrong end of the gas apparently does a lot of squirming and gasping for breath. It's significantly more dramatic.

The problem is, I think he's got it all wrong. If Donahue can get this execution on the air, it will be a ratings smash. We're talking at least Amy Fisher numbers. Maybe Nancy-Tonya numbers.

In fact, if a state wanted to raise some serious money to help pay for locking up and doing away with criminals, it could televise the executions on a pay-per-view basis, like they do prize fights.

People won't want fewer executions. They'll want more. They'll want to watch the bad guys get theirs. And maybe we could throw in some canings, which seem to be a popular attraction these days.

Or we could bring back lions, like the Romans used.

All it requires of us is this: that we become nearly as barbaric as the killers themselves.

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