Executed by tweet

By | 30th June 2010

It was just a wooden chair! There was nothing remarkable about it until one realised that the padding at the sides consisted of cushions piled on top of one another and strapped together and that underneath was a shallow metal tray.

Even that did not really capture the menace behind the image until one realised that the blemishes grouped together in the left hand corner of the back of the chair were in fact the marks made by the bullets fired by his executioners into the chest and heart of convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner.

Whatever your views about capital punishment I was left with the overwhelming sense that this was not what I wanted to see published in my newspaper. After all, in the days when we had capital punishment here we were not treated to interviews with the hangman or grisly pictures of the swinging noose ( or at least not since the days of public executions).

Too much information, you might think! But then I came across the extraordinary news that the Utah State Attorney General had tweeted the news that Gardner’s pleas had been rejected shortly before the execution took place. He tweeted: “I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied  his victims”.

The fact that the Attorney-General announced to the world that he had allowed the execution to proceed is not, in itself, remarkable. There was a significant public interest in the event and if he had made the announcement in a letter or on TV I doubt if there would have been any controversy. However, the fact that he used the medium of Twitter has caused a storm with commentators arguing that the use of this medium to disseminate this kind of information is inappropriate and others arguing that it is all a matter of getting the information into the public domain and the means used were quick and efficient.

I mentioned late last year that the first injunction was served in this country using Twitter and that the Twitterati had been at least in part responsible for the lifting of that horrible animal the super injunction in the case of the Ivory Coast toxic waste dumping. [See:  The Last Straw 6th October, 2009 and King Charles I and the Twitterati 27th October, 2009]

Tweeting injunctions and disseminating information about them seems to me to be in a different category altogether from State officials tweeting information about life and death. Efficient as it may be I cannot help but feel that this type of communication should not be used for subject matter as potentially explosive as reprieves ( or not) on Death Row.

But if anyone thought that Twitter did not concern them they should be quickly disabused of the idea. In a recent case of Sexting (yes, it really exists) in California, (where else?) a Sergeant Quon appeared to be sending an inordinate number of texts on his departmental pager. Department officials discovered he was sending an average of 28 texts per shift but that only three were work related. The personal messages were largely to his wife and mistress both of whom happened to work for the local police department. Quon sued the police department for violating his privacy after they sought to recover from him the cost of the personal texts. But in a unanimous judgement, the Supreme Court held that government officials were entitled to review emails and texts on work owned mobile phones and computers as long as there is a legitimate work related purpose!

It is a strange old world out there and woe betide anyone who thinks that Twitter is not something they need to be concerned with. After all the next client who rings you (assuming they use anything as old fashioned as a telephone) may be wanting advice about a text they sent at an unfortunate moment to someone they would rather not have involved from a place they did not want their nearest and dearest to find out about.

You may not like it as a medium but you need to be aware of it and its capacity to surprise!