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Are public executions legal? Ask the lawyer

Are public executions legal? Ask the lawyer

Q: Our Governor opposes the death penalty, and President Joe Biden does as well. But for many of us, an “eye for an eye” is justified. Wouldn’t it serve as a real deterrent to have public executions? Is doing so illegal?

-K.S., Rancho Palos Verdes

Ron Sokol

A: The last public execution in the United States was in 1936. It is not that public execution is illegal so much as there is one very pragmatic reason why executions are not carried out in public: The crowds become unmanageable. Currently, there are certain persons who can view the death penalty being administered in a confined location, specifically those related to the person being executed, the victims’ families, and sometimes reporters.

Q: What is meant by “cruel and unusual punishment?” Seems to me it is very ambiguous and could relieve someone of the punishment he or she deserves.

-G.N., Newport Beach

A: The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The phrase “cruel and unusual” means punishment that is very harsh or barbaric, and too severe for the crime committed. Examples are a 56-year prison term for forging checks totaling less than $ 500, handcuffing a prisoner to a horizontal bar exposed to the sun for several hours and torture.


The Innocence Project (whose website can be found online) is a national nonprofit organization focused on freeing wrongfully convicted persons through DNA testing. More than 349 people in the U.S. have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, of whom 37 pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit, and 20 who served time on death row.

Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 35 years of experience. His column, which appears in print on Wednesdays, presents a summary of the law and should not be construed as legal advice. Email questions and comments to him at ronsesq@gmail.com.

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