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Witness to the Execution

Reports on a study by Stanford University researchers who polled journalists who had witnessed a California state execution in 1992. How the study compared the reaction of journalists with the responses of 36 law-firm employees who had undergone a deadly ordeal as a gunman shot 14 of their coworkers; Results of the study which appeared in the 'American Journal of Psychiatry'(Vol. 151).

One hundred fifty journalists entered a California lottery in 1992, not forcash, but for front-row seats to the state's first execution since 1976. Eighteen won, but the thrill of victory was more than they bargained for.

Witnessing the gas-chamber death of murderer Robert Alton Harris, from 15 to 20 feet away, was as traumatic as if they themselves had been under enemy fire, say Stanford University researchers.

They polled the journalists about their reactions to the event. Then they compared the responses to those of 36 law-firm employees who had undergone a deadly ordeal first-hand—they had fled for cover as a gunman shot 14 of their coworkers, killing eight.

Both groups experienced acute stress reactions—including profound anxiety, time disorientation, distance from emotions—even though they acquired them in nearly opposite ways. "The journalists earnestly sought to witness the execution," says David Spiegel, M.D., a coauthor of the study in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 151).

Unlike the law-firm employees, the journalists were nothing if not mentally prepared. They knew how and when the execution was going to happen, and they had a job to do—to write about it—to help them discharge their anxiety. Still they experienced an enormous range of posttraumatic stress.

"We showed that killing is killing, whether socially sanctioned or not," concludes Spiegel. That finding makes him very leery of televised executions. He's not sold on the argument that public executions would be a deterrent to crime.

"The kind of people who would be upset by it have empathy, and murderers don't," he explains. "And the fact that it's over the TV doesn't make the experience any less resonant." This Spiegel knows from an ongoing study of children's reaction to the Polly Klass kidnapping in Northern California. "Kids 500 miles away have the same symptoms as those in the same town."