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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002 / 15 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Will Olympic judges
soon be firing blanks? -- FOR a state with such a stern and strait-laced image, there's something about Utah. . . .

When the story is big enough, the news coming out of that state tends to give a bad name to the concept of accountability.

As the Olympic Games were winding down, the president of ice skating's worldwide governing body, in Salt Lake City for the competition, announced a proposed change in the judging system, to avoid the appearance of a fix. This came in the wake of the weirdness during the judging of the Olympic pairs figure skating.

In an effort to reduce the chances of a judge being bought off, International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta recommended this:

Instead of nine judges on a panel scoring ice-skating competition, as is now standard, there should be 14. But only the votes of half the judges would count. The votes of seven of the judges -- randomly selected by computer -- would simply be dropped. So 14 judges would vote -- but only seven of the votes would count.

In theory, this would make it harder to effectively pay off a crooked judge -- why waste your bribe on someone whose vote might not even be included? You wouldn't know who to slip the money or the political favors to.

This would not seem to be a ringing endorsement of the integrity of the judging as it exists now . . . but putting that aside for a moment, the let's-not-even-let-the-judges-know-if-their-votes-will-count strategy reminded me of another story in Utah some years ago, one that in its own way received coverage as big as the Olympics. So I went back in my notes and checked.

Yep. At the execution by firing squad of murderer Gary Gilmore, a variation of let's-not-let-the-judges-know was a key part of Gilmore's death.

There were five executioners on that Utah morning in January of 1977 -- each armed with a hunting rifle containing one bullet. The five were positioned behind a barricade; they were instructed to aim for Gilmore's heart, over which a target had been placed.

But -- here's the parallel -- one of the rifles did not contain a live round.

The executioners were supposed to fire at the exact same moment -- but only four bullets would end up going into Gilmore's chest.

The reason was so that none of the executioners would ever know whether he really killed a man. They were not informed which of them had the blank; each could go home thinking that perhaps he had not killed Gilmore -- perhaps he had fired the dud.

That had been Utah's execution tradition for many years -- five riflemen, four live bullets. The executioners were assigned to end someone's life; the only-four-bullets-are-real rule was intended to spare them future remorse.

(This may or may not have been a misguided attempt at compassion; in 1996, when another murderer in Utah, John Albert Taylor, was scheduled to die before a firing squad, there was a news report that the state was having trouble finding people willing to act as executioners. The report, it turned out, was not accurate -- but as word of it spread, hundreds of people called the state prison to volunteer to kill Taylor. Not only did they say they would not be bothered by doing it -- it was something they eagerly sought.)

Although the situations are very different -- the judging of skating contests, the execution of killers -- and Utah's role in them is also quite different -- the skating commission president only made his announcement in the state, while the executions were official acts of the state -- the underpinnings do have a similarity.

Is the way you get rid of crookedness by judges to assume they will be dishonest -- to have so little trust in them that you plan in advance to toss out the votes of half of them? And: If you ask people to take on as somber a task as executing another human being, and those executioners, after careful consideration, consent to do it, do you then attempt to minimize what they have agreed to do by deliberately not letting them know if they have done it?

Both situations -- one more literally -- have melodramatic echoes of the old "Stop me before I kill again" line.

In future Olympic Games, they might have to change the "Faster, Higher, Stronger" Olympics motto. The new slogan:

"Stop me before I judge again."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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