Culture and Society

Who is allowed to witness the execution of a prisoner?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Executions in the United States used to be open to the public, with some states even charging for admission, but today they are carried out with only a few witnesses in attendance. In fact, the last fully public execution in the United States occurred in 1936 in Owensboro, Ky.  A crowd of 20,000 onlookers, reporters and photographers gathered to watch [source: Policinksi].

    Generally, the people allowed to witness an execution are the prisoner's relatives, the prison warden, prison guards, representatives from the media, relatives of the victim or victims, medical staff, state-selected witnesses and spiritual counselors. In some cases, the prisoner's relatives are kept separate from the victim's relatives. Some execution chambers use one-way mirrors, and others have traditional clear windows, which allow the condemned prisoners to see the witnesses. In the case of death by lethal injection, the window's curtain is drawn back once the prisoner has had IVs inserted into his or her arms.

    Until now, the only news image to depict the exact moment of a prisoner's execution appeared in 1928 in New York's Daily News. The story featured the execution by electric chair of Ruth Snyder, who, along with her lover Judd Gray, had been convicted of strangling her husband Albert. Cameras were not allowed inside Sing Sing prison, so the Daily News hired a Chicago Tribune photographer named Tom Howard to cover the execution. Howard had strapped a miniature camera to his ankle and hidden it with his pants leg. He was able to uncover it and snap the photo at the exact moment that Snyder was executed. The photo ran on the Daily News cover and caused quite a stir [source: Shahid].

    In general, states do not allow photography or videotaping at executions. If they did, it's possible that in today's technological and even sensational culture, images or videos of executions may one day be released on television or online. In July 2011, prison officials in Georgia OK'd a request from convicted murderer Andrew DeYoung's attorneys for a video of his execution by lethal injection [source: Policinksi]. In effect, they planned to use the video after DeYoung's death to argue against use of pentobarbital as an adequate drug to ease inmates' pain and suffering during executions.

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