Death on the box

Pictures at an Exhibition:
May 12, 1995

In 1764 Cesare Beccaria argued in On Crimes and Punishment that public executions were an "example of cruelty" that served only as "entertainment for the majority and, for a few people, the object of pity mixed with scorn". The spectacle of an execution, far from acting as a deterrent for potential criminals merely hardened them while at the same time undermining public respect for lawful authority. In an argument that decisively influenced penal theory and practice for more than two centuries, Beccaria maintained that deterrence was best achieved through properly administered and proportionate punishment. The withdrawal of executions from the public gaze in most European states during the 19th century was taken to be a sign of an enlightened and civilised modernity moving steadily towards the eventual abolition of the death penalty.

Wendy Lesser's book joins Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish and Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged in questioning this complacent orthodoxy. In the face of the revival of the death penalty in the United States and the re-emergence of retributive philosophies of punishment, she reconsiders the case against public capital punishment, echoing many of Beccaria's arguments. Her book follows a court case between the public television station KQED and the warden of San Quentin prison, Daniel B. Vasquez, heard in San Francisco in 1991. The issue before the court concerned the TV station's right to videotape and televise the planned execution of the convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris. The Supreme Court ban on capital punishment had been lifted in 1976, and California, along with several other states, reinstated the death penalty in 1978: Harris was to be its first victim. KQED's case for televising the execution rested on the first and 14th amendments and an attempt to extend the Supreme Court decisions of 1980 and 1986 permitting the televising of criminal trials to include the act of execution. The warden of San Quentin refused access to KQED's cameras on the grounds of the threat to prison security and personnel posed by televising the execution.

The trial KQED vs. Daniel B. Vasquez became a public airing of the arguments for and against public executions, and Lesser uses it to reflect on the issue of the representation of murder in general, of which televising an execution provides a particularly challenging example. The result is an intriguing and disturbing exercise in applied practical philosophy that raises several difficult questions, many of which were aired in the trial itself. Instead of being confined to the single legal point of whether screening the execution would pose a threat to prison security, the issues heard in the court were extended to include the potential aesthetic and political implications of a televised execution. Is it possible and desirable to videotape an execution "tastefully", and if so, who would control the camera angles and focus? Would televising executions lead to the public's revulsion against capital punishment or to an unhealthy fascination with the spectacle of death, or even to indifference? Do the public have a right to witness what is being done in their name or should they be denied it on the grounds that the spectacle of prison officials engaged in organised murder would discredit the criminal justice system? And what of the possibility of future executions being broadcast "live"? Lesser explores these and many other questions in a reflective and digressive manner that leads her to some challenging and provocative conclusions interestingly at variance with the verdict reached by the presiding judge.

The basic philosophical question raised by this book is whether a public largely in support of the death penalty should have the right, or even the obligation, to witness their justice being done. Lesser's book challenges those who support capital punishment to test their potential hypocrisy by asking themselves whether they would be prepared, through the media, to participate in an execution and thus bear their part of the responsibility for what is, after all, an officially sanctioned act of murder.

Howard Caygill is a lecturer in sociology, University of East Anglia.

Pictures at an Exhibition:: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder

Author - Wendy Lesser
ISBN - 0 674 66735 2
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 0pp

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