DOCUMENT: Evidence, Crime

Executions: In A Theater Near You

The Oklahoma City bomber's demise, coming during a TV "sweeps" period, has again triggered a debate over whether such executions should be broadcast. While proponents have argued that the public has a right to see the government carry out death sentences (and even that viewing an execution might serve as a crime deterrent), most Americans believe that a televised killing would serve little purpose, appealing only to the public's most base and voyeuristic instincts.

But that hasn't always been the case.

During the World War II years, Americans were regularly presented with graphic evidence of what happened to spies, saboteurs, and other enemies. It was a time when many people didn't own television sets, so they relied on newsreel footage for filmed updates on current events. Played before the featured attraction at the local movie house, the newsreels covered everything from German atrocities to the latest fashion craze--they were the precursor to TV's nightly news programs. In many cases, footage was provided to newsreel producers by the War Department,whose cameramen filmed from the battlefield and near the firing squad.

Here's a look at what your parents or grandparents--with Baby Ruth and popcorn in hand--might have viewed while settling in to watch Bing Crosby in "The Bell's of St.Mary's."

A Nazi civilian, the newsreel announcer gravely notes, pays the "supreme price" for murdering "one of our boys." (Circa 1945, 45 seconds):

Three German soldiers are hitched to posts spread several feet apart. What appears to be a brigade of executioners then carries out the death sentence. (Circa 1945, 34 seconds):

This Army Signal Corps footage is typical of what the War Department made available to newsreel companies during and after World War II. This silent clip begins with footage of the death warrant being read and ends with the condemned man being stuffed into a waiting coffin. (1946, 1:13):

That emphatic "please close your eyes!" warning was warranted for this silent--and very graphic--newsreel clip showing the death of a Cuban rebel (Circa 1936, 36 seconds):