Six ‘Respectable’ Citizens Must Watch AR Executions

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Volunteering to watch someone die by execution is one of the hardest tasks asked of Americans. After states experienced a series of botched executions and troubles procuring drugs used in lethal injections, Arkansas has struggled to find enough witnesses. Its call for volunteers has come as state lawmakers have made the process less accessible, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The focus on the death chamber curtain underscores “an extraordinary period for the death penalty in the United States,” says Amherst College political scientist Austin Sarat. Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center says that, “If the role of the witness has changed, it’s because the importance of that role has grown.”

Until 1936, U.S. executions public events. The hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Ky., that year, caused a public uproar and set in motion a reform effort to preserve the dignity of condemned prisoners. Smaller groups of invited witnesses have remained integral to document the process. Arkansas requires six “respectable” citizens to watch an execution. Among them are often local pastors, sheriffs, newspaper reporters, crime buffs, and families of the slain. “The role of the witness is a complicated and contradictory one,” says Sarat, author of the book, “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” An execution “is dramatic and traumatic for the individual witness, but it’s really just a cog in the bureaucratic machinery. Yes, [bearing witness] has an important theological connotation, but they are also being invited to see something which is required to be seen.”

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