Recording the Pain of Others: Lethal Injection’s Visibility Problem

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In July 2011, Georgia executed Andrew DeYoung for murdering his parents and sister. Pursuant to a motion to preserve evidence brought by counsel for Gregory Walker, another man on Georgia’s death row, DeYoung’s execution produced the only existing video of a lethal injection in the United States, which remains under seal in a Georgia courthouse.1 This effort to record an execution runs against the historical trend of making executions less visible by bringing them inside prison walls and limiting eyewitnesses.2 Unlike similar cases, the successful motion to preserve DeYoung’s execution and autopsy on video did not litigate the public’s right to see executions; it instead argued that visual evidence of a botched execution was necessary to support another condemned man’s Eighth Amendment claim.

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1 Motion to Compel Response to Allow Preservation of Critical Evidence of the Execution of Andrew DeYoung, Walker v. Humphrey, No. 08-V-1088 (Ga. Super. Ct. July 19, 2011) (on file with author). Only one other execution has been recorded (Robert Alton Harris in California), pursuant to a class action challenging lethal gas; ultimately, the judge in the class action did not view the video, which was destroyed in 1994. Associated Press, Videotape of a California Execution is Destroyed, N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 13, 1994, at 35; Email from Brian Kammer, Exec. Dir., Ga. Research Ctr., to Author (Sept. 24, 2018).

2 See generally, e.g., JOHN BESSLER, DEATH IN THE DARK: MIDNIGHT EXECUTIONS IN AMERICA (1997) (tracing the history of executions, from public hangings in colonial times to modern-day private executions); WENDY LESSER, PICTURES AT AN EXECUTION (1993) (exploring a federal court’s decision not to televise Robert Alton’s execution).