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Videotaping executions: Ethical dilemma or sensible practice?

Why would the state, the defense, or a department of corrections want or need to video-tape an execution?

By Dr. Bruce Bayley

This past July at 8:04 pm, Andrew Grant DeYoung was executed for the murder of his father, mother, and 14-year-old sister. While executions in the United States are still fairly rare events, what made this incident unique was the presence of a videographer who documented the completion of his sentence. While the Georgia legal system approved the video-taping of DeYoung's execution, a troubling and perhaps far more reaching question still remains — is filming the execution of a condemned inmate ethical?

To begin to address this dilemma, a basic underlying question must be asked — why? Why would the state, the defense, or a department of corrections want or need to video-tape an execution? In a recent article, Greg Bluestein of the Associated Press shared the thoughts of Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno who explained that recording these types of events "would help immensely in detecting the many problems with the lethal injection process, especially if the videotaping included all of the procedure from start to finish."

As a counter to this position, Georgia attorneys felt that allowing a video crew access to the execution could both interfere with the heightened security that routinely surrounds an inmate's final hours and potentially create a situation where the video might be leaked to the general public.

In order to discuss the fundamental ethics of these dynamics, one must first decide which ethical system you're going to use (there are many, but only two will be discussed here). An ethical system provides a foundation for moral rules that lead to moral actions and as such, determining which ideology to use is critical.

1. Ethical formalism
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that good will (or motivation) was, in the end, the only thing that is basically good. One's duty was essential and because of this, he developed the concept of Categorical Imperatives. For Kant, something would be considered a Categorical Imperative when the basic elements are absolute (they are either right or wrong; good or bad — there is no in-between), are based upon good will, and ultimately lead to a sense of morality (as you'll remember from previous articles, morals are the judgment of a behavior as right or wrong, while ethics is the study and analysis of what constitutes good or bad conduct).

Ethical dilemma:
Semantics is a primary problem with ethical formalism. There is no consensus as to the advantages and disadvantages (the absolutes) of video-taping an execution. Both sides believe their actions are based upon good will and as such, both sides will argue the morality of documenting the event should be judged as just.

Sensible practice: Defense attorneys will argue that video-taping an execution meets all of Kant's criteria, and therefore is a sensible practice. The basic elements are absolute (the desire for justice, the maintenance of rights, etc.), the actions are based upon good will (the oversight and protection of the condemned), and lead to a sense of morality (while not overtly stated in Bluestein's article, this sense of morality in their mind is most likely the elimination of the death penalty).

Corrections officials, however, will counter that not allowing the video-taping is a sensible practice. The basic elements are absolute (the protection of the inmate, the protection of the correctional officers and officials involved in the execution, etc.), are based upon good will (the safety and security of the facility and everyone and everything involved in the process), and ultimately lead to a sense of morality in that they are protecting the sanctity of a very serious and personal process.

2. Utilitarianism
The next ethical system to consider is Utilitarianism. Developed by famed criminologist Jeremy Bentham, utilitarians believes the morality of your actions depends on how much those actions contribute to the overall good of society. In the end, that which creates the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people is considered good.

Ethical dilemma:
Corrections officials will argue that video-taping an execution does not contribute to the overall good of society. It may benefit attorneys who want to go over each aspect of the procedure in great detail, but in doing so, they hold up the process of enforcing the orders of the court, cost the taxpayers substantial amounts of money, and may, by giving the condemned a false sense of hope that they'll "find something wrong," actually cause additional anxiety and stress (that could, in and of itself be considered cruel and unusual).

Sensible practice: Defense attorneys, however, will contend that archiving the inmate's death does contribute to the overall good of society by insuring the condemned are treated humanely and that if, as they believe, executions are cruel and unusual punishment, that we, as a society, can elevate our standards with respect to how we treat our fellow man. Their position will be that when the treatment of a single inmate is improved through the analysis of these videos, we as a society benefit because the system, acting on behalf of society, condemned that individual.

In the end, we must come back to that fundamental question asked at the beginning of the article — why? From the defense attorney's position, does video-taping an execution give you something new to assist those who have been condemned of a capital crime? From my standpoint, the answer is no.

Every execution is scrutinized by a number of individuals (attorneys, the media, academics, etc.), the process is overseen by a multitude of people and professions whose sole task is to insure the court's orders are carried out in an efficient and humane manner, and as seen in the case of DeYoung, the court ultimately sealed the video, making any analysis and review of its contents extremely difficult — if not impossible.

From a corrections perspective, why document an event when access to the video (if allowed) is controlled by the court, not corrections. Why put the officers and other correctional officials involved in the execution in harm's way should the video ever become public (laws do change and what is sealed today may be available through the Freedom of Information Act tomorrow)?

Executions that are ordered by the court are a serious matter and as such, are taken seriously. Creating an archive that is ultimately designed to pursue a political agenda (the elimination of the death penalty) is not an ethical action. As supported by both ethical systems discussed in this article, protecting the sanctity of taking a life and the safety of those charged with carrying out this difficult task — is.

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