Public Release: 

UC sociologist traces the evolution of the execution

University of Cincinnati

Past and present, the witness to the execution continues to have a profound impact on the method of the execution, its procedure and its publicity, according to a University of Cincinnati researcher. At the 100th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia, Annulla Linders, UC assistant professor of sociology, presents her paper, "The Return of the Spectacle? The Modern Execution Event in the United States." Linders' presentation takes place at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15, at the ASA meeting in Philadelphia.

Early findings from Linders' study suggest that the more recent practice of involving the victim's family in witnessing the execution has once again resulted in personalizing capital punishment, contradicting efforts in the 19th century to bar executions from becoming a public spectacle.

"Viewed as a mirror held up to the execution, the audience is a constitutive element of the execution and, in this sense, not only carries the potential to grant (or deny) legitimacy to the execution event, but also provides capital punishment with a set of cultural meanings that reaches far beyond any particular execution," Linders writes.

Linders defines four general areas of audience influence that have led to contemporary conflicts in capital punishment:

Pain and technology - The courthouse hangings have evolved into a humane and painless form of execution, sparing the audience emotional turmoil and avoiding embarrassment for the state. Outrage over electric chair and gas chamber executions has made lethal injection the most common form of execution today.

Procedures and professionals - Linders reports that the emotional demands of execution witnesses who are family members of the victims are challenging the precision and efficiency sought by prison officials and secured by the involvement of disinterested professionals in such a way that the success of the execution can no longer be measured exclusively in terms of efficiency.

Publicity and public access - Public viewing of executions came to an end in the 19th century, but the publicity issue is back again with the debate over televised executions. Linder says the issue has arisen repeatedly over the last few decades, and most recently in the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. Public access to executions is a persistent topic for both sides of the death penalty issue.

Witness and psychological closure - Inviting the family of the victims to witness executions is a new practice that emerged in the 1990s. Linders finds that the call for emotional closure is adding additional pressure on the execution not only to be swift and efficient, but also to satisfy the psychological demands of the long-suffering families of the victims.

Early results of the study suggest three larger cultural connections are linked to personalizing present executions, including pressure from the victim's rights movement, associating the death of the perpetrator with the worth of the victim and modern society's intolerance of premature and unnatural deaths.


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