Would you witness an execution?

Earlier today a South African woman was executed for attempting to smuggle drugs into China in November 2008.

Janice Bronwyn Linden was executed by lethal injection. She was caught trying to smuggle 3kgs of crystal methamphetamine (tik) into China. Before her execution, Linden's two sisters - who were in China - were allowed to spend an hour with her prior to her execution. It is unclear if the sisters were present at the execution.

Another case

In December 2005 Stanley “Tookie” Williams was also executed by lethal injection . The convicted killer was at the centre of one of biggest anti-death penalty campaigns in the United States in decades. His execution was watched by reporters and relatives of the victims. Did it help the relatives, or simply add to their pain?

Psychologists are divided over the effects of an execution on spectators. Those watching may have hoped for some sign of remorse. Instead, Williams maintained his innocence.

Cape Town psychologist Ilse Terblanche says watching the execution would have been traumatic in itself. I think that it would have been important for these people to be in therapy to clarify what expectations are, what the meaning would be for them and the possible effects on them after the execution.

Informed decision

“With the help of an objective outsider, people can make more informed decisions about whether or not they should witness such an event. Follow-up therapy is especially important as witnessing such an event is traumatic. People might need help processing and integrating this experience.”

She adds: “I think it’s difficult to generalise as people would be affected differently. For some it would be a healing experience in that it brings closure. It might also leave them feeling that justice was done. For some it could fill them with a sense of revenge. Others might be retraumatised by witnessing the execution.”

After the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, psychologist Laurence Miller of Boca Raton, Florida., who works with crime victims and police agencies, was reported on CNN as saying: "In a perverse way, the bombing survivors are actually lucky because they have the opportunity for a kind of closure that very few violent crime victims ever get. It's one of the few cases where there actually is a beginning, a middle and an end."

Emotional stake

Miller added that other Americans affected directly or indirectly by violent crime may have had an emotional stake in the execution and felt ‘closure’ on behalf of the victims.

"Those who don't get that kind of closure are identifying with these survivors - 'We'll join in with you. We want to see one instance where justice is actually carried out,"' he said. "It's a societal type of closure, a closure for us all."

(Sapa, Health24, updated December 2011)

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