Beheadings are Out, But Watching Executions is in Vogue

A 1950 photo of the electric chair is shown at the Raiford Prison in Raiford, Fla. When introduced in 1922, the electric chair was seen as a humane means of execution. (AP Photo/Florida Photographic Collection)

From crucifixions and beheadings to firing squads and lethal injections, public executions have long been a part of the justice system.

Now, one sociologist suggests that the audience has helped shape the recent evolution of these executions.

Relatives of the victim may want a swift execution to bring closure to a tragic chapter of their lives. Parties concerned with the convicted criminal's pain call for quick and painless executions.

In a study by University of Cincinnati sociologist Annulla Linders, evidence indicates that execution witnesses have affected the method, procedure, and publicity of executions.

"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.

Most recently, the practice of allowing the victim's family to witness the execution has resulted in the personalization of capital punishment. This contradicts the efforts made in the 19th century to prevent executions from becoming a public spectacle.

Early results from Linders' study suggest that there are three large cultural issues that are currently affecting public executions – pressure from the victim's rights movement, associating the death of the convict with the worth of the victim, and modern society's general intolerance of premature and unnatural deaths.

In her paper "The Return of the Spectacle? The Modern Execution in the United States," Linder details four general ways that the execution audiences have influenced contemporary executions:

Pain and technology: In the United States, most states have turned to more humane and painless forms of execution. While a few states still approve of execution by hanging, the electric chair, firing squads, and gas chambers, public outrage over these methods of execution has made lethal injection – by comparison quicker and less painful – the most common form of execution today.

Witness and psychological closure: Involving relatives of the victim to witness the execution is relatively new – it began in the 1990's. Linders writes that the call for emotional closure has influenced the execution to be quick and efficient.

Publicity and public Access: Although public viewings of executions came to an end in the 19th Century, demand for publicized executions is on the rise. Linders says this issue has cropped up several times over the last few decades, particularly when high publicity convicts – such as Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing – are put to death.

Procedures and professionals: Involving an audience and meeting the emotional demands of victim family members has complicated the precision and efficiency of executions that prison officials prefer. 

Linders presented her reserach today at the 100th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia.

Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.