Don’t Execute People in Public

But don’t execute them in secret, either.

Illustration of a hanging post whose rope is shaped like America
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

The last public execution in the United States was a raucous and tawdry affair. By the time 20,000 people poured into Owensboro, Kentucky, for the 1936 hanging of Rainey Bethea, a Black man in his 20s who had pleaded guilty to the rape of a 70-year-old white woman, public executions had been on the wane in America for several decades. Reformers worried about the brutalizing effect of such violence on spectators, and southern states seemed disturbed by the displays of mass religious devotion among the gathered crowds, in which white people and Black people often numbered equally. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, hangings that lured the masses began to give way to electrocutions hidden inside prison walls.

But Kentucky was a holdout, and Bethea’s execution drew viewers from around the country. Part of the appeal was the widespread presumption that Owensboro’s sheriff, Florence Thompson, would conduct the execution herself, a lurid curiosity at the time. Though Thompson ultimately delegated the job to a male surrogate, the event’s many thousands of viewers still received their share of spectacle in the form of a clearly drunk hangman slurring his way through the execution.

Many legislators and cultural commentators of the 20th century were abashed by the carnivalesque mass indulgence in executions, and some worried that continuing the public killings would eventually result in the end of capital punishment altogether, fretting that a civilized public wouldn’t tolerate such barbarism for long. For both sincere and Machiavellian reasons, therefore, the notion that it was neither decent nor ennobling for the citizenry to enjoy deaths by violence as a spectator sport was crucial in ending public executions state by state. After the media frenzy surrounding Bethea’s killing, Kentucky banned the practice as well.

But American interest in public execution has never quite expired: Just this March, the Daily Wire host Michael Knowles wholeheartedly pitched the idea of public executions on a call-in show, and a Tennessee Republican state representative proposed “hanging by a tree” as a potential execution method. If Knowles’s suggestion landed with little disturbance, that was likely because this territory is already familiar on the right. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone reported that Donald Trump has floated the idea of televised executions. The proposal is of a kind with right-wing moves to harshen capital-punishment protocols as killing criminals becomes a potent electoral issue in the run-up to 2024.

But there’s something ironic about conservatives calling for public executions: If conservatives wanted to let people see executions, they could just stop preventing them from doing so.

States go to great lengths to ensure that their executions remain as secret as possible. For states with active capital-punishment regimes, protecting information about executioners’ identities and qualifications, lethal drugs and drug suppliers, and the precise procedures used in putting citizens to death is crucial to securing the future of executions. This is why access to executions is already as limited as it is, and why execution states routinely limit press access to executions. Members of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections, for example, repeatedly closed the blinds on the observation window in the execution chamber during Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in 2014, blocking the media’s view. The Nevada Press Association sued the Nevada Department of Corrections and other Nevada state officials for full access to executions in 2021. And if I had a nickel for every red-state Department of Corrections that won’t take my calls, I could buy myself a nice cup of coffee.

According to a 2018 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, 13 states have enacted execution-secrecy statutes since 2011: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming. In April 2019, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas signed a bill that expanded upon the state’s existing execution-secrecy laws with new privacy provisions, and in May 2022, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a similar statute in Florida. Last month, state lawmakers in South Carolina passed a set of bills introduced by three Republicans that will levy criminal penalties—including imprisonment—for revealing the identity of executioners or the name of execution-drug retailers.

Supporters of capital punishment need this information to be hidden for a few reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, killing people for a living is something of an ignominious job that many are eager to encourage but few are willing to take. The guarantee of secrecy helps death-penalty states fill jobs.

But the information also threatens the institution of capital punishment itself, because it tends to be highly discrediting. In 2008, for example, the Missouri Department of Corrections was forced to sever ties with a dyslexic executioner with more than 20 malpractice suits filed against him. He admitted that he had mistakenly given some inmates smaller-than-protocol doses of lethal-injection chemicals. In 2012, according to court documents, an Idaho corrections official exchanged a suitcase containing $10,000 in cash for a dose of lethal chemicals from a vendor in a Walmart parking lot inTacoma, Washington. Wholly public executions would make discoveries along these lines only more, not less, frequent.

But right-wing provocateurs don’t want executions to be public in the sense of being made available to the citizenry for scrutiny as a matter of civic interest. What I suspect they mean is that they would like executions to be vulgarized: to be popularized and commodified but not necessarily to be significantly revealed in any way. A vulgar execution may be televised or livestreamed or otherwise alchemized into content, but like any content, it need not expose the truth. If public executions were to return, they would be edited for effect, and consumed on phone screens and tablets and laptops; the profiteers would be the usual networks and streaming platforms. Anything more comprehensively public would compromise the institution of capital punishment, and its supporters know that.

Without a civic purpose, there’s no strong argument for expanding the American state’s catalog of content to include human slaughter. To claim this new frontier would be to join the ranks of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations that routinely publicize executions for propagandistic reasons. And it would be to surrender to a fascistic cheapening of human life that is plenty emergent in American society as it is, and needs no further prompting from this kind of mass-market barbarism. For now, these proposals are just talk; with good fortune and an ounce of political wisdom, they’ll remain so.