Tweeting about an Execution

I don’t really understand the whole Twitter phenomenon, but I do know that it set off a small firestorm when Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff tweeted several times about the execution of convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner. At first he wrote: “A solemn day. Barring a stay by Sup Ct, & with my final nod, Utah will use most extreme power & execute a killer. Mourn his victims. Justice.” Then came: “I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.” Finally, he posted: “We will be streaming live my press conference as soon as I’m told Gardner is dead. Watch it at”
Some in the press called Shurtleff’s tweets “play-by-play commentary” on the execution and complained that tweeting on the execution trivialized the process. These commentators certainly have a point. Any new form of communication runs the risk of trivializing its subject. When a life hangs in the balance, that risk becomes a more significant concern (and somehow a form of communication called a “tweet” seems to make it worse). I doubt that any public official would treat a life-and-death issue involving a soldier or a crime victim with a similar series of tweets. That observation, and the apparent hostility in some of Shurtleff’s messages, leads to the conclusion that the tweets were intended to express contempt for the convicted murderer.

In the case of a public official who is charged with carrying out society’s will that a person be put to death, should we, as a society, be concerned if he also expresses contempt for the individual? I think not — at least not in this case.
The Catholic Church teaches that there is dignity in all human life. The Catechism states that the death penalty should be reserved for the rarest of cases — only those situations when society is otherwise unable to protect itself. That will virtually never be the case in the United States or most other developed nations. Nevertheless, most states (and the federal government) do have capital punishment, and we ask some people to kill other people in our name. Not only are several people involved in the execution itself (in this case, they were the shooters in Gardner’s firing squad), but so are numerous decision-makers, including the prosecutor who seeks the penalty, the judge who imposes it, the jury that confirms it, and the governor or justice who can overturn it. All of these people carry out a societal obligation by killing another citizen for us.
Of course, we tend to have the executions at night, behind closed doors and guarded prison walls. We have official observers, but we do not permit television cameras or viewing by the general public. It’s kind of like meatpacking: Just bring it out after it’s been wrapped in plastic. Don’t tell me how it got that way.
When it comes to criminal punishment, this closed-door process is flawed for two reasons. First of all, if punishment is meant to deter others, people must know about it. An execution cannot frighten anyone when it remains unseen. Those studies that show the death penalty to have little detterent effect might be quite different if executions were held out in the open.
More important for today’s discussion is that we as a society have asked people to carry out a horrific act on our behalf. We have asked them to kill a fellow citizen in our name. That fellow citizen has, by the time of execution, been rendered harmless. The executioners are not killing in battle; they are killing prisoners. That takes the life of the convict, but it can also take a toll on the executioner.
As a society, we should be aware of the impact the death penalty has on both the executed and the executioner. Viewing the process is the only way to assess the justness of our decision to use capital punishment. Yet we virtually never see how the execution affects executioners and other decision-makers (like Attorney General Shurtleff), because we see so little of the process itself.
An expression of contempt by Shurtleff for someone that society has asked him to kill (or play a big role in having killed) is a mere reflection of his own humanity. Shurtleff would have to believe that Gardner deserved to be executed, or he could not carry out his job. Can we legitimately ask him not to express that belief? Would that not deny Shurtleff his humanity? Would it not also deny us a small insight into an often overlooked impact of the death penalty? 


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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