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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Deaths That Go Unseen

October 11, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Dead men talking.

Real-life death has become a fairly routine item on television without much resistance from viewers. Not long ago, for example, ABC's "PrimeTime Live" aired an expose showing Chinese soldiers shooting dead a row of convicts whose organs were subsequently sold on the black market.

Remember news videotape a few years ago of a woman being gunned down by her estranged husband at a Miami cemetery? Pop, pop, pop. Recall Jack Kevorkian coolly giving the needle to a man with advanced Lou Gehrig's disease on "60 Minutes?" Live pictures of that gory shotgun suicide on a Los Angeles freeway overpass? Police blowing away fugitive motorists? The Great Shootout in North Hollywood? Jets crashing at air shows?

I had occasion recently to pop in an old tape of a Seattle TV station's story showing a member of a daredevil dance troupe falling to his death from a tall building while performing for a noon audience on the pavement. Although presented tastefully, sensitively, even poetically, it was still a tragic, unexpected death.

Some of TV's most famous news pictures also have been about violent death: Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald at point-blank range in 1963, and in Saigon a Buddhist monk torching himself at a protest, and South Vietnam's national police chief dispatching a Viet Cong prisoner with a bullet in the head.

If someone's demise provides dramatic pictures, chances are you'll encounter it on a newscast. No longer shocked, viewers have come to expect it like weather and sports, and many may even look forward to it.

How ironic that deaths we don't see on TV--are barred from seeing, in fact--are those we initiate ourselves as a society.

On Friday, ABC's "20/20" did a segment on "reality shows" that included brief footage of a TV series in Guatemala that televises government executions. There on the slab, connected to wires, was a man in the process of being put to death. Barbara Walters gave it the old icky-poo response, as if that brand of death, in contrast to others, was just too hideous to watch.

No wonder capital punishment is an abstraction to most Americans. They experience it almost entirely through the prisms of media members who are the official witnesses designated as our surrogate eyes and ears.

A different kind of eyewitness perspective arrives Thursday on the National Public Radio series "All Things Considered."

Just 24 minutes long, this unique first-person documentary about the Texas death house, a small brick building known as the Walls Unit, is titled "Witness to an Execution." Its voices, in addition to media members, are mainly those of state criminal justice employees--including the warden, Jim Willett--who are up close and personal when convicted inmates are put to death by lethal injection in this Huntsville prison.

They must be good at their jobs. They've had lots of experience.

Willett narrates the documentary himself: "We've carried out a lot of executions here lately. . . ."

As the nation has been hearing. Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential candidacy gives this program a topical niche within an ongoing debate about capital punishment that has intensified due to recent advances in DNA testing.

Central to this killing ritual, which one prison captain says is "down to a fine art," is Willett himself. According to a newspaper reporter and veteran witness: "The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioners behind a mirrored-glass window. When the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow."

There's no direct editorial comment here. Yet Willett ends the documentary, which is from award-winning Dave Isay's Sound Portrait Productions, by stating ambiguously: "There are times when I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, and [I] wonder whether what we're doing is right here. It's something I'll think about for the rest of my life. Now maybe you'll think about it too."

Yet curiously, words by him, and the specialists assigned to carry out the critical minutiae of state killing--a different guard is assigned to strap down the head and each wrist and leg--have less impact when heard than when read in a transcript. In the main, these men and two prison chaplains in the documentary sound as detached ("When he is laying down, the straps are being put across him . . .") as someone describing in detail the baking of bread.

The exception is former guard Fred Allen, who had participated in some 120 executions as a member of the "tie-down team" when he suffered a mental breakdown. It came in 1998, two days after Texas had executed its first woman, an admitted murderer who was contrite, sweet-faced and soft-talking, and claimed to be a reborn Christian in the national TV appearances she made just before her death.

Her name was Karla Faye Tucker.

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