Executions: Should the death chamber be silent?

VARNER, Ark. — The nation’s first double execution in more than 16 years raised a new issue involving transparency and the death penalty: Should witnesses be allowed to hear what goes on in the death chamber?

A lawyer who watched Monday’s executions in Arkansas said he saw an inmate open his mouth several times when it should have been still, prompting another lawyer to claim in a court filing that Jack Jones was gulping for air after being given a sedative, the first component of a lethal injection. Other witnesses did not see it the same way. An open microphone could have settled the question.

When the two convicted murderers were put to death, the 20 or so witnesses heard only what Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley wanted them to hear.

A spokesman for the Arkansas prison system, Solomon Graves, said he inherited a policy that limits what can be heard from the death chamber.

“There is no legitimate reason to turn off the sound,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “If you’re going to have public oversight and the witnesses are going to be able to do their jobs to determine whether the execution was carried out in a competent manner, if there’s something unanticipated that happens, the way you tell is by what people say.”