Covering Executions  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1995

Covering Executions   

Few if any assignments pose the challenges of reporting on a convicted criminal being put to death.

By Cynthia Barnett
Cynthia Barnett is metro editor of the GainesvilleSun. She has witnessed four executions in Florida’s electric chair.      

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Michael Graczyk can't remember when he stopped counting.

A Houston-based Associated Press correspondent for the past decade, Graczyk has covered more executions in the United States than any other reporter. He's made the 76-mile drive north to the state's death chamber in Huntsville on more than 60 occasions. He's not sure precisely how many.

Memories of only four of those lethal injections stand out: the first one he covered, of course; the time the needle popped out of the inmate's arm and began spurting the chemical solution all over Graczyk and the other witnesses; and the two executions in which the inmates, strapped on the gurney and preparing to die, blurted out his name.

"Hi Mike. How are you doing?" Bob Black called to Graczyk from his deathbed in May 1992, picking him out in the crowd of witnesses and telling him that he felt stretched out like a cooked goose.

Another inmate, Raymond Carl Kinnamon, whom Graczyk interviewed over several years before watching him die last December, thanked Graczyk for the fine stories he'd written about his case, and especially for his fairness.

It didn't faze Graczyk. "I took notes," he says. "It was eerie because I knew them, but it just became part of the story. You rely on your reporting skills just like in any other story. You watch what happens, write down quotes, report the story. It's pretty basic."

Basic to Graczyk, perhaps, but not necessarily to the growing number of journalists called to cover executions, now legal in 38 states and applicable for some federal crimes in any state. The number of executions has been going up over the last 15 years. There were none in 1980; last year there were 31.

Covering an execution – by lethal injection, electrocution, gassing, hanging or even firing squad – can spur journalists to do things they normally wouldn't dare with any other story. They may dramatize, they may cry, they may write in the first person, they may opine, they may become violently nauseated. Viewing an execution also can trigger short-term psychological trauma that may require professional counseling.

?n execution challenges journalists in other ways as well. Beyond reporting the details of the act, reporters also must decide how – or whether – to address the social and political ramifications of state-sanctioned murder. Although a September 1994 Gallup poll indicates 80 percent of the public endorses capital punishment, it's a divisive issue that elicits passionate opinions.

As more and more journalists are called to witness executions, newsrooms need to address the emotional fallout from the story and the three key elements needed to cover it well: context, detail and preparation.

Most of the reporters interviewed for this article say it's impossible to watch an execution without some emotional reaction. They also stress it's critical to set those feelings aside to ensure their audiences get a complete and accurate account. Emotional detachment, however, may exact a psychological price.

Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, who witnessed an execution in Florida's electric chair as a reporter in 1983, called the experience "absolutely compelling and frightening and sobering, and one that will give you nightmares. You have to be almost robotic about the reporting, and then the emotional part hits you later."

Mike McKnight, an investigative reporter for WOWT-TV in Omaha, Nebraska, was one of five journalists to witness the September 1994 execution of convicted murderer Harold LaMont Otey, the first person to die in Nebraska's electric chair since 1959. McKnight says his biggest fear "was whether I was going to faint or puke" and miss the story. He didn't.

"It's up to me to tell people what happened so they can make up their own minds about capital punishment," he says. "That's why it's particularly important to keep your head on straight."

Sacramento Bee senior writer Sam Stanton has watched two convicted killers die in San Quentin's gas chamber. He says covering an execution "is different than covering, say, a murder, because it's the state that is killing someone."

Stanton covered the war in Somalia in 1992. He says witnessing the cyanide deaths of Robert Alton Harris in April 1992 and David Edwin Mason in August 1993 – the only two California inmates put to death since 1967 – was more difficult.

"There was much more violence in Somalia, but boy, it's a different kind," he says. "It's random. Just a bunch of thugs with guns. But this is a ritualistic killing of a human being... And I guess that's what makes it different – knowing how it's going to happen, when it's going to happen, where it's going to happen..everyone knowing and the inmates knowing, too."

Some journalists covering the Harris execution discussed their opinions publicly and produced emotional, first-person accounts. Stanton, conversely, provided Bee readers with a dispassionate report on what he saw and heard. The story won the 1993 American Society of Newspaper Editors' distinguished writing award for deadline reporting.

"I wouldn't give my opinion before or after and there were reporters who were shocked about that," he says. "It struck me that if you put anything in your account of the execution that tells how you felt about it, readers wouldn't be able to make up their minds whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. This was the first time in 25 years this had happened in California, and the people of California needed to make their own decisions about it.

"The fact that nobody's ever been able to figure out how I felt about the execution shows me I did a pretty good job of keeping my emotions out," he adds. "Because, let's face it – who cares how I feel about it?"

At least one group of people did care about Stanton's feelings – a team of researchers at Stanford University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The researchers, Andrew Freinkel, Cheryl Koopman and David Spiegel, surveyed Stanton and 14 other journalists one month after they witnessed the Harris execution to assess its psychological impact. They found a pattern of dissociation – the separation of feeling from thinking – and at least some short-term psychological trauma, though in follow-up interviews none of the journalists reported severe or long-lasting problems.

The study's results, published in the September 1994 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, revealed that one journalist cried for weeks, a few complained of listlessness and decreased concentration, two talked to counselors about the execution and several dreamed about it. While most said they would cover another execution if they were assigned to do so, none would volunteer.

The researchers found that dissociation "may have been helpful on a short-term basis in allowing journalists access to parallel awareness that helped them complete their news reports on the execution without interference from their personal reactions." But Freinkel warns that dissociation is not a healthy defense mechanism in the long run. Becoming inured to any type of violence, he maintains, "is itself dehumanizing and brutalizing. Literally it makes one brutish.

"As a reporter, you have to recognize that you have witnessed an extreme event and not minimize it," Freinkel says. "Don't obsess over it, but recognize that it is a very profound thing to have seen somebody killed."

Journalists who have covered executions say the best way to get through the wrenching experience is to focus on details. Graczyk, the Texas AP correspondent, says that's the advice he gives reporters who call him for reassurance before an execution: "What I tell them is to keep their eyes and ears open and soak in the environment."

Cody Lowe, a Roanoke Times & World-News religion and ethics reporter, covered Virginia's first lethal injection in late January. "You're checking out what the other witnesses' reactions are, you're checking out the clock, the expressions on the guards' faces, who's coming in the door, the color of the curtain behind the prisoner, looking at all the details..," he says. "I think that by concentrating on those things, you subdue the emotional response."

In February, Graczyk wrote about a mother watching her condemned son die. Stanton, the Sacramento Bee reporter, captured the detail of Robert Harris mouthing "It's all right" to a guard watching, and "I'm sorry" to the police detective whose son he had slain. Last December, Indianapolis Star reporter Lynn D. Ford described the tears of an 18-year-old boy as he watched his father die in Indiana's electric chair.

Ron Word, a Florida AP reporter who has witnessed more than 25 electrocutions at Florida State Prison in Starke, says reporters should fill their notebooks with everything, no matter how insignificant it seems. He captured for the nation Ted Bundy's "cool steel-blue eyes staring straight ahead" when the prison doctor lifted the convicted serial killer's hood to pronounce him dead in January 1989.

"For a concentrated 10 or 15 minutes, you are writing down everything you can possibly see and think of," Word says. "Even though a good hunk of it will never make it in the story, you've got the good details in there when you need them."

Ben Bagdikian, a former Washington Post assistant managing editor and retired dean of the graduate journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, says that reporting details of executions devoid of any social and political context is sensationalistic.

"If one measured in a newspaper and time in a television newscast the quantity of crime versus the context of crime, it would be a very disturbing ratio," Bagdikian says. "We know as journalists that there are particular moments when the public pays attention to an issue. If the high school valedictorian and six of the best students on graduation night get drunk and die in an accident and it greatly disturbs the community, that's the time we do stories on teen drinking, on drunken driving."

Execution can be just as dramatic a metaphor, he says. "Viewing execution is too often just easy access to melodrama. But execution is a time when the public would pay attention to the controversy of the death penalty and whether it does any good to deter violence."

University of Florida sociologist and death penalty expert Michael Radelet agrees that context is usually left out of the daily story. He points out that most stories fail to describe, among other things, the arbitary and often discriminatory process of deciding which convicted killer will die and which will be allowed to live.

At the same time journalists strain to name every morsel of the inmate's last meal, says Radelet, they often ignore the inmate's personal history or the politics behind his death sentence. Even issues of innocence usually go unreported.

Coverage of executions is "too shallow, and getting more so," he says. "Few reporters have the time to dig through all the court papers to get the story."

Radelet cites a 1990 execution that might not have happened if contradictions in a key witness' testimony had been exposed.

On May 4, 1990, a Florida death row inmate named Jesse Joseph Tafero was electrocuted for the 1976 shooting deaths of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and a Canadian constable. The execution was botched. A malfunction in the electric chair, later linked to a faulty sponge in the headpiece, caused six-inch-high flames and smoke to fly from Tafero's head during each of three charges it took to kill him.

The grisly nature of the execution made headlines and prime time across the country. But another story about the Tafero case, which could have been reported with some digging before the execution, didn't come out until a quiet court decision two years later – and even then received little attention.

The actual triggerman in the murders received life in prison in exchange for his testimony, but he gave conflicting accounts at the separate murder trials of Tafero and his girlfriend. They both received death sentences. Two years after Tafero's execution, the contradictions came to light and Tafero's girlfriend was released from prison. It was too late for Tafero.

Journalists did report that sparks flew out of Tafero's head, and that he had scrambled eggs with sauteed onions and peppers for his last meal. But they missed the fact that he may have been innocent.

Journalists tend to gloss over other key points of an execution story: the crime, the victim, the victim's family and the trial. They can be difficult to track down. The murder may have taken place 10 or 15 years earlier. The family of the victim may have moved away, or may have become so frustrated with the criminal justice system and the media that they don't want to talk about it. That's why, say journalists who have covered executions, it's crucial to prepare well before the day the death sentence is carried out.

The families "do get lost, and it's one of the most difficult calls I have to make as a reporter," says Graczyk. "Sometimes it's very sad, you talk to these people time and time again and then the inmate gets a reprieve. When people like me call, we're asking them to resurrect horrible memories of their loved ones being killed. I've had people cry on the phone. I've had people not know the inmate was about to be put to death.

"I tell them, 'Look, there is a lot of emphasis placed on the inmate during an execution,' " he continues. " 'Reporters like me are chronicling his final days. But you are a victim in this. And if you have anything to say, here is your opportunity.' "

Graczyk tells family members the time he will be coming out of the death chamber and asks if he can call them then to let them know the execution took place. "By warning them that I'm going to call at 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning, it enables me to get a quote. I'm doing them a service and I'm doing the AP a service by getting a survivor reacting to an execution."

The crime and the trial also are easily missed by reporters covering the execution, who rarely report the story from day one. Word, the Florida AP reporter, advises researching and writing the background in advance, since execution day is going to be hectic, with no time to fill holes. "You do your homework ahead of time," he says, "like you would on any big story."

But experienced journalists acknowledge that it's not easy to prepare when relatively few reporters – and even fewer editors – have witnessed an execution. They advise calling journalists who have, and learning the prison's precise execution-day routine. By knowing what happens in a "textbook" execution, they say, reporters are not as likely to be surprised or traumatized, and will know if something goes wrong.

Omaha World-Herald reporter Leslie Boellstorff says talking to experienced journalists and reading Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 book, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," helped her prepare for covering Harold LaMont Otey's execution last September, a major story in part because it was the first time Nebraska's electric chair had been used in 35 years.

John K. Wiley, an AP correspondent in Spokane, also sought out advice. He says the first thing he did when assigned to witness the January 1993 hanging of convicted murderer Westley Allan Dodd was "call our two death bureaus – Florida and Texas." Neither Word in Florida nor Graczyk in Texas had witnessed a hanging, but they were able to help Wiley figure out the types of stories he needed to file and how to get them in quickly.

"I was very concerned that we cover it correctly..," Wiley says. "A lot of the emotion and other things I shoved aside, because getting it right was so important."

Journalists assigned to witness an execution often must report to other media organizations what they see in the chamber, since states limit the number of reporters present. In the Tafero execution, for example, Ron Word became a source and a witness for reporters who wanted to compare Tafero's death to a "normal" electrocution.

Anticipating the legalization of the death penalty in its state, the Iowa Newspaper Association recently conducted a survey to find out how much access journalists have to executions around the country. It found most states require a pool, putting media witnesses in the position of becoming sources for other re-porters. In some states, such as Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Montana, journalists have no guarantee of access at all. In Indiana, the condemned inmate decides which report-ers, if any, may be present.

The pool can also be a distasteful experience, especially in high-profile executions such as Ted Bundy's in Florida, Robert Harris' in California or Otey's in Nebraska, where more than 1,000 people gathered outside the penitentiary in Lincoln, many of them chanting "Go Big Red!" – a cheer for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Several journalists interviewed for this article say being in the media spotlight made them critical of their colleagues.

"The news conference was astounding to me," says McKnight, the Omaha television reporter who witnessed the Otey electrocution. "The first question was actually, 'Did this change your opinion of the death penalty?' What does my opinion have to do with it? I would think reporters would want to know what his last statement was, or that he stared each one of us in the eyes like a shark."

A handful of journalists, however, maintain that if they bear witness to an execution on behalf of the public, they're entitled to voice an opinion about it. Several reporters did so after the Dodd hanging at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and after the Harris gassing.

"When it comes to the death penalty, there is a forced objectivity that doesn't really exist. The objectivity is a lie," says reporter Richard Polito with the Marin Independent Journal, San Quentin's county paper. Polito wrote a very personal account of the Harris gassing and doesn't apologize for it.

Watching an execution is an experience, he says, not an issue to be covered. "Everybody knows what happens. A man is strapped into a chair and killed," says Polito, who opposes the death penalty. "I think the real story is, 'What is it like to watch it?' Not what happens, because anybody can tell you what happens."

Tamara Koehler, a Bakersfield Californian reporter who witnessed the Harris execution, says there was never a discussion in her newsroom of what possible emotional impact the execution would have – only that it was a great story. From the time Harris was scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. to well after the cyanide was released at 6:01, after a surreal night and morning of stay after stay, Koehler struggled with a huge knot in her throat – and with whether she was human or a machine.

"I do think editors should address the personal side of the reporter at times like that..," says Koehler. "It seems like there was a feeling that that would have been too soft a way to treat a reporter, but that's a myth.

"I think I would have liked editors sitting me down afterward, one on one, in a closed room where I could let out what I felt and thought. And not have it be judged in a competitive, journalistic sense – just for a little while."

?n addition to some good old-fashioned listening, editors working with a reporter who has just covered an execution should stress the seriousness of the event, as Freinkel of Stanford suggests. Editors also may recommend counseling, or, at the very least, a day or two of downtime. The key is sensitivity.

Says Hiaasen of the Miami Herald, "I think at some point it wouldn't hurt editors covering the criminal justice system to go and witness one of these things. Then the reporter could have somebody to talk to about your feelings and emotions."

Stanton, the Sacramento Bee reporter, was grateful to his editors for locking him in a private office and leaving him alone to write after the ordeal of the Harris execution. The bottle of scotch they sent him home with didn't hurt either. l

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