Study examines viewers' role in American death penalty films

August 4, 2014
The curtains are opening in the witness chamber during the execution scene in the 2009 film Law Abiding Citizen (above). Simultaneously, the curtains are opening on the stage in the cello recital scene (below). Credit: Journal

Over the course of the last 100 years or more, many scenes of execution in American film have offered intimate knowledge of executions, giving viewers a privileged 'backstage' gaze of an execution not available outside film, the chance to see what executioners see, and a chance to understand the condemned's experience as he awaits death.

These motifs are explored in a recent Law & Social Inquiry analysis, in which the authors conclude by asking whether and how scenes of in American film provoke an awareness of the political responsibility inherent in viewers' identities as democratic citizens in a killing state.

"The death penalty is very much in the news and I hope this research will provide a broad context for today's political and legal debate," said lead author Dr. Austin Sarat.

Explore further: Doctors and medical ethicist discuss whether doctors should participate in capital punishment

More information: Sarat, A., Chan, M., Cole, M., Lang, M., Schcolnik, N., Sidhu, J. and Siegel, N. (2014), Scenes of Execution: Spectatorship, Political Responsibility, and State Killing in American Film. Law & Social Inquiry, 39: 690. DOI: 10.1111/lsi.12084

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