OBJECTIVE: The first execution in California since 1976 took place
recently in the San Quentin Prison gas chamber. Eighteen journalists were
invited as media eyewitnesses. The authors postulated that witnessing this
execution was psychologically traumatic and that dissociative and anxiety
symptoms would be experienced by the journalists. METHOD: To investigate
the prevalence and specific nature of these symptoms, questionnaires were
sent to all the journalists about a month after the execution. The
questionnaire contained 17 items assessing dissociative symptoms from the
authors' questionnaire of 35 highly intercorrelated acute stress items.
Fifteen of 18 of the witnesses returned the questionnaire. Items were
endorsed on a scale of 0 ("have not experienced") to 5 ("very often
experienced") and analyzed as being dichotomously present or absent. The
mean age of the respondents was 37.6 (SD = 8.6) and mean years as a
journalist were 15.2 (SD = 9.0). Nine subjects were men and six were women.
RESULTS: Journalists witnessing the execution endorsed an average of 5.0
dissociative items, ranging from "I saw, heard, or felt things that were
not really there" (endorsed by no one) to "I felt estranged or detached
from other people" (endorsed by 60%). This prevalence of reported
dissociative symptoms is comparable to that seen among persons who endured
the recent Oakland/Berkeley, Calif., firestorm. CONCLUSIONS: The experience
of being an eyewitness to an execution was associated with the development
of dissociative symptoms in several journalists.