Sam R. Hall

Sam R. Hall is executive editor of the Daily Journal.

The state of Mississippi executed David Neal Cox on Wednesday night. We covered the case, the lead-up to the execution and the execution itself, with a Daily Journal reporter one of the eight media witnesses at Parchman that night.

A reader put this to me after reading our coverage: “I don’t understand why a news organization would send a reporter to watch someone be executed. I get that an execution is news. But what does it say about a reporter — or anyone — who would voluntarily watch a man get put to death? Isn’t that the definition of ghoulish?”

It’s not an uncommon question, and I understand from where people are coming when they ask it.

The answer is as simple as it is complex.

The simple answer: Executions are an important news event, and the media has a duty to cover it like we would any other important news event.

The more complex answer: When the state — and, by default, the people — are involved in ending the life of someone, it should be witnessed and reported so that the interest of the general public, the victims and, yes, the executioners and the condemned are protected.

The state must be better than the condemned, and that means compassion and humanity even in carrying out an execution, which I know is in itself hypocritical to some.

Imagine if executions were handled in private. Do you think they would always be handled humanely? Probably not.

Some people would be fine with that. Some people want murderers to suffer in the same manner their victims suffered. I know that if someone killed my wife or children, I’d want them to suffer. Truthfully, I’d want to be the one abusing them as they abused my family, ensuring their death was slow and brutal and painful.

But that would do nothing but darken my own soul and cause me another kind of pain. It would rob me of part of my humanity. That’s why we have built a system of justice, not of revenge, in this country.

So when we talk of humane treatment, it’s not just to protect the health and wellbeing of prisoners and the condemned but of those charged with carrying out the sentences.

But we know that those within the justice system don’t always escape intact, including those who simply work in it. Sometimes conditions inside are so deplorable that it breaks inmates down, robbing them of whatever humanity they had. Sometimes dealing with depravity day after day rots a guard or officer from the inside, making them hard — at times even mean and wicked.

It’s the reason the media spends so much time looking at the justice system. Jails and detention centers will never be pretty places, but they should not be hell on earth, either.

Just as any institution can be corrupted, the best defense against such is transparency and access. Yet just because something is stated to be open, if nobody is there to obverse it, then those in power will act as they choose.

So, no, it is not ghoulish to observe these executions to ensure that they are carried out in a humane, solemn manner. And — just as in anything else — by reporting what is happening in an honest and descriptive way, we can provide people a little more information to decide if they approve or not of what their government is doing.

SAM R. HALL is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at sam.hall@djournal.com or follow @samrhall on Twitter.

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