The "media circus" surrounding Gary Gilmore's execution was due to a few factors:
1) He was the first person executed in the United States after a 10-year moratorium
2) He never appealed his execution and, in fact, protested whenever it was appealed on his behalf
3) Perhaps most importantly, Rolling Stone sent his brother Mikal to cover the execution. It's a hell of a read. Google "my brother Gary Gilmore" and you'll find a .doc of the whole thing.
Something else to consider is that "humane execution" isn't exactly something the human race is just now grappling with. Most cultures settle on beheading which is messy as hell. All that blood spraying about tends to be seen as barbaric. Nonetheless, the guillotine is about as efficient and humane as we've gotten it. It involves a lot of apparatus, though, so firing squads pop up instead (unless there are religious reasons for the spilling of gallons of blood in the public square - lookin' at you, Saudi Arabia). Pretty soon, that, too looks barbaric.
One of the most gripping passages I've ever read is the first words of Bertil LIntner's Blood Brothers:
It was execution day in Shanwei, an isolated town on the rugged, pirate-infested coast of China’s Guangdong province. Thirteen men, handcuffed and shackled, had already been herded into the town’s courtroom on charges of piracy. They staggered out soon after with their fates sealed: death by firing squad. “Doomsday arrives for ‘evil monsters’ of the sea” declared the local authorities with medieval relish, although afterwards they mellowed somewhat, and allowed the pirates to drink a large amount of wine, “to help take away the tension of being executed” as one official put it. Thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse for a glimpse of the damned men as they were led away to the execution grounds. By then, most of the pirates were profoundly drunk and singing loudly.
To the people of Shanwei - indeed, to anyone familiar with the dark traditions of the South China Sea - there was nothing unusual about this scene. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, hordes of men and women were organized in confederated fleets of thousands of junks which dominated the entire coastal region of southern China. They were at one and the same time immortalized in local folklore - which often depicted them as Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and resisted the oppressive authority of the Emperoros - and, less romantically, feared by their victims, many of whom were actually ordinary people living along the coast.
The spectacle in Shanwei, however, was not taken from ancient history. It happened in January 2000 - as was obvious to anyone who heard the drunken pirates sing. Jumping up and down in his rattling chains, Yang Jingtau, a 25-year-old pirate, led the chorus with a boisterous rendition of Ricky Martin’s theme song for the 1988 World Cup, ironically called ‘The Cup of Life’:
Before Yang and his fellow convicts had time to sober up, they were trucked away to an open field on the outskirts of Shanwei, forced to kneel in a row, and dispatched one by one by an executioner with a Kalashnikov - one bullet through the back of the head, one bullet through the heart. A coroner was on hand to certify the deaths. Then, in the Chinese tradition, the families were billed for the ammunition costs.
Something not mentioned until later is that Chinese prisoners executed by firing "squad" (ie, a dude with an AK-47) are instructed to open their mouths so that the bullet will pass cleanly through their brainstem without messing up their faces. That way, their families aren't traumatized as much by the corpse. Which sounds barbaric as hell to our ears because we like our executions in the abstract - give the bad man some sleepy sleepy drugs and it ceases to be a problem.
What we're seeing here is the abstract becoming concrete.
That's the way we deal with the death penalty debate in the United States: "Do you, citizen, abstractly believe that an abstract prisoner who committed an abstract capital crime against an abstract victim should be put to abstract death by an abstract entity in accordance with abstract standards of morality and justice?" Because as soon as it becomes concrete, it becomes about vengeance, not justice.
John Oliver had a great take on it last Sunday. He made the point that even if you know 100% the criminal is guilty, and you know 100% that the victim's family wants the criminal put to death, do you want to live in a country that gives them what they want?
Sorry. Complex issue for me.