The psychological trauma of witnessing an execution

Clinical research has backed this up. A study written up in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1994 showed that witnessing executions could cause symptoms of dissociative disorder in journalists in the weeks following. Many people answering a survey about their experience in the San Quentin Prison said they felt anxiety and “felt estranged or detached from other people.” The researchers found that the journalists displayed short-term psychological trauma on levels equal to people who had experienced another traumatic event a few years prior, the massive and fatal firestorm in Oakland and Berkeley in 1991.

Journalists on the prison beat (almost always) have to observe and report objectively about what they see. Family members of the inmates’ victims, of course, have an entirely different reason for being present at an execution, and a very different experience of it. Presumably, they’ll see just one execution, and they will attend in the hopes of gaining that oft-cited goal — “closure.”

So do they get it? Annulla Linders, a sociologist at the University of Cincinnati, presented a paper recently at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting that explored that question. In interviews with reporters after the experience, victims’ relatives sometimes express disappointment about the sterile and efficient process, or a sense of frustration over the anti-climax. “It was so quick,” they might say, or “[he] should have gone through a little bit more pain.”