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Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(4) (1993) 28-31

The Capital Punishment Industry

Director: NA
Release Information: Films for the Humanities and
Sciences, Princeton, NJ. (1993) VHS, 30 min.
Rating: NR

The Capital Punishment Industry is an inaptly named and ineptly executed (sorry) 30 minute video born of the familiar format that has made host Phil Donahue the king of daytime television talk shows. It begins with Donahue's sardonic and barking announcement that: "Almost everybody in America wants to execute somebody! We are mad as hell! Let's roll 'em in there, shoot 'em with whatever it takes, fry 'em, shoot 'em, whatever it is, and then roll the stiff right out of there. Another problem solved." Appreciative "whoops" and "woofs" sound from the audience, and Donahue begins to introduce his panel of guest experts on the death penalty. The ensuing 30 minutes are a melange of trivia, misinformation, sensationalism, and occasional thoughtful opinion about capital punishment in the United States, circa 1993. Serious students of the death penalty, and even the casually curious, would do much better to spend their half hours elsewhere.

The five guest panelists are the 23 year veteran warden of the prison containing Alabama's death house, whose sincere but uncomfortable countenance is beamed into Donahue's television studio on a video screen via satellite; the former warden at the penitentiary housing Mississippi's gas chamber ("not a very pretty way to go," Donahue informs us); a man credited with inventing the lethal injection method of execution (a curious claim, in that death by lethal injection was proposed in the New York Legislature as a more humane method of execution than hanging as early as the 1880s, although New York eventually decided to adopt an even "more humane" killing instrument, the electric chair); a man just released from Angola Prison in Louisiana after serving 25 years behind bars for the murder of a grocery store clerk; and a man who appeared on Donahue's show 11 years earlier in response to a newspaper advertisement for "volunteer executioners," who still claimed to be "ready to pull the switch" because he was out of patience with[End page 28] murderers who claim that they are "depraved because they were deprived." Close-ups and pans of the audience confirm that this is a typical Donahue crowd--intense, eager to express their disapproval at just the right moments, and enamored of their host and master of ceremonies.

Donahue and his experts combine to present a wealth of misinformation about the death penalty, interspersed with such forgettable commentary as the last meals selected by Alabama's condemned prisoners (steak and potatoes get the nod over Big Macs), and the sequencing, duration and exact voltage of the current that is used for the electric chair (an initial "jolt" of 2200 volts for 20 seconds, followed by 950 volts for 100 seconds--although the proper ordering for the administration of these currents occasions debate, centering around whether the executee's heart is apt to start beating again 10 to 20 minutes after death has been pronounced). Whatever value these facts have to the audience, Donahue and his guests unfortunately combine to offer up misleading and downright erroneous information about death penalty laws and practice. For example . . .

--Donahue flashes back to a 1971 interview that he conducted in Ohio of an apparently shaken reporter who is describing an execution that he has witnessed. Although the impression is created that Donahue has managed to secure this interview immediately after the execution, Ohio last used its electric chair in 1963, and there were no executions anywhere in the United States from 1968 until 1977.

--Donahue soberly intones that, "Nobody executes but the United States . . . and South Africa." Although the United States is among a minority of Western industrialized countries that use the death penalty outside of wartime, the U.S. and South Africa hardly are the only countries in the world that make use of capital punishment. Many Asian, Middle East, African, and other countries also do so.
[End page 29]

--Donahue informs us that, with 27 executions in 1992, the United States had "a record breaker" for annual executions. The 31 executions that actually took place in this country in 1992 indeed make the highest total since executions resumed in 1977 following a 10-year moratorium, but this short-sighted view of history ignores much higher annual numbers of executions throughout the preceding century, including the modern record of 199 in 1935.

--Notwithstanding his own graphic that shows that 20 states had adopted lethal injection as a method of execution by 1992, Donahue repeatedly states that lethal injection is being used in only four states.

--A guest explains, in answer to a question from the audience, that Professor Michael Radelet has coauthored a book documenting that 28 innocent people have been erroneously executed in this country since 1930. In fact, Radelet's study with Professor Hugo Bedau reports evidence that 23 innocent people have been executed since 1900 (with eight from among these being executed after 1930). (The precise number of innocent people executed, of course, will forever remain unknown.)

--Another guest informs us that "the McCleskey decision" reinstated capital punishment in this country in 1976. McCleskey v. Kemp, a landmark decision in its own right, held in 1987 that Georgia's death penalty system was in compliance with the Constitution, notwithstanding evidence that killers of whites were significantly more likely to be sentenced to death than were killers of African Americans in similar cases. Gregg v. Georgia and its companion cases reaffirmed the validity of capital punishment in 1976.

--Donahue's commentary and accompanying graphic about race and the administration of capital punishment altogether ignore the race-of-victim discrimination that the Supreme Court considered in McCleskey v. Kemp, and that has surfaced repeatedly in empirical studies of the administration of death penalty laws since 1976.
[End page 30]

He instead presents information about the race of defendants who have been sentenced to death. Donahue observes that African Americans make up 39 percent of the death row population, and offers that this representation is far out of proportion to the number of African Americans in the United States. While not incorrect, this comment overlooks that African Americans actually are underrepresented on death row compared to the number of criminal homicides (the data do not shed light on capital murder specifically) committed by members of that race. It also misses the import of recent research that has uncovered little evidence of race-of-defendant discrimination in the administration of the death penalty, but has produced significant evidence of race-of-victim

There are some good videos covering death penalty issues. One of these is The Thin Blue Line, which brilliantly documents Randall Dale Adams' conviction for murdering a police officer in Texas and his subsequent stay on death row before he was exonerated and released, largely owing to publicity surrounding this film. Another is "Fourteen Days in May" which portrays the last two weeks in the life of a man awaiting execution in Mississippi's gas chamber. The Capital Punishment Industry is not a good video about the death penalty. It merits one gavel on the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture's rating scale--which, if administered with sufficient force to the videocassette cartridge, will spare potential viewers the experience of having to watch it.

James R. Acker
University at Albany
State University of New York
School of Criminal Justice