Covering capital punishment and death row execution: 8 tips from Michael Graczyk

 
Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk interviews death row inmate Juan Castillo in Texas. (Courtesy of Michael Graczyk)
Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk interviews death row inmate Juan Castillo in May 2018. (Courtesy of Michael Graczyk)
By

May 10, 2019

Before retiring in 2018, Michael Graczyk covered capital punishment for more than 35 years as a criminal justice reporter for the Associated Press. He has observed more than 400 prison executions in Texas, which leads the country for the number of people executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Today, Graczyk still writes about death row inmates as a freelancer.

“He built a reputation for accuracy and fairness with death row inmates, their families, their victims’ families and their lawyers, as well as prison officials and advocates on both sides of capital punishment,” AP reporter Nomaan Merchant wrote in an article about Graczyk’s retirement. “He made a point of visiting and photographing every condemned inmate willing to be interviewed and talking to relatives of their victims.”

Nationwide, there were 2,814 men and women on death row at the end of 2016, the most recent year for which the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has released data. Although more than half of U.S. states and the federal government allow capital punishment, the vast majority of executions in 2017 occurred in four states — Texas, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama, according to a preliminary federal report.

Later this month, four prisoners are scheduled to die by lethal injection in Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. The governor of California instituted a moratorium on the death penalty in March, but prosecutors there are still seeking a death sentence for a former police officer accused of being the notorious Golden State Killer.

Journalist’s Resource called Graczyk at home in Texas to ask him about his work and for tips to share with other journalists who are reporting on capital punishment, death row or executions. Here are the eight tips he gave us to pass along:

 

1 — Get experience covering the criminal justice system.

“Some reporters are so isolated, they’ve never actually covered cops or courts or crime,” Graczyk says. “They show up at an execution and they’ve never seen a dead body …

“My advice is: Get familiar with the courts. Get some real-world experience. See a dead body. Cover the cops. Cover the courts. Read the court opinions. All these capital cases are going to wind up in federal courts — at least 99% of them. You need to understand how judges write and how to read court opinions and how supreme courts and circuit courts of appeals work. Talk to the appeals attorneys … [and] prosecutors who actually put this person in a courtroom and tried them.”

 

2 — Know the facts of the case you’re covering.

“It sounds pretty basic, but know the case — know what this person is accused of, know what this person is convicted of, know who the players are,” Graczyk says.

In Texas, inmates spend an average of 15 years and eight months on death row. For some, the wait is much longer. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the longest-serving inmates were David Lee Powell, executed in 2010 for killing a police officer during a traffic stop 32 years earlier, and Lester Leroy Bower, put to death in 2015 after serving 31 years behind bars.

“In a lot of cases, reporters weren’t even alive when the crime occurred. Some of these cases are really, really old,” Graczyk says. “Know the case and get educated and understand how the courts work — or don’t work. … Stay away from legal jargon … people don’t understand that. I find it’s always good to just explain things. There is no need to make something more complicated than it already is.”

 

3 — Remember the victim.

Coverage of capital punishment broadly and of executions specifically tends to focus on the men and women who are accused or convicted of killing and injuring people. Stories, especially those written years or decades after the crime, sometimes barely mention victims and their families.

Graczyk says he tries to make sure victims and families remain a key part of his stories, although it can sometimes take a lot of extra work to track down those individuals.

“If I make this concerted effort to talk to the inmate, I make a concerted effort to talk to the victims as well,” he says. “If no one is available, I say that … Remember that executions can happen decades after someone is sentenced and so lots of people may have moved or passed away or are unreachable.”

 

4 — Avoid asking victims’ families if an execution gives them “closure.”

“One of the questions I really wince at when I hear it from reporters — especially when it’s said to a relative of a murder victim — is, ‘Does this give you closure?’ This is so cliché. It ranks up there with ‘How do you feel?’” Graczyk says.

At an execution, he suggests approaching victims’ friends and family members in another way. “I usually ask them, ‘Why did you decide to be here?’ and ‘Are you disappointed this has taken so long?’ if it’s a particularly long case,” he says. “If the inmate ignored them, [ask] ‘How disappointed are you that they didn’t acknowledge you or express remorse?’ I’ve talked to enough people to understand there is no such thing as closure. I think it’s an inadequate question.”

 

5 — When you cover an execution in person, focus on your role in providing a factual account of the event. It will help you keep your feelings and opinions in check.

“I don’t know how to phrase this without sounding insensitive, but if you go in there with the idea that this person was innocent, was the victim of a broken system, you’re not going to do a good story,” Graczyk says.

“I tell myself, ‘You’re there to do a job. Your job is to tell the story of what happened in there. And if your emotions get the best of you, you can’t do your job.’ I can’t tell you what it’s like at an electrocution or gas chamber or hanging. … In Texas, here it has only been lethal injection. Essentially, someone is lying there and you’re watching them and they quickly go to sleep and they don’t wake up. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but that’s what happens.”

 

6 — Take notes.

Graczyk said he has seen some journalists come to observe an execution but don’t write anything down. That doesn’t make much sense to him because there are so many details he says a journalist will need to remember — who came to witness the execution, for example, and what the prisoner said and did before dying. In Texas, recording devices and cameras are not allowed in the death chamber room where witnesses gather to watch, but journalists can bring in paper and something to write with.

“If you’re not able to take notes, you’re not going to be any good in there,” Graczyk says. “I’ve seen reporters not take any notes and go back and talk about what they saw. You might have a photographic memory and be the exception, but I don’t know too many people like that.”

 

7 — Pay attention to key details.

Graczyk says reporters should note the various things they see and hear while in the death chamber.

“You listen for the final statement,” he says. “We report what’s the last thing this person decided to say and you want to get that right.”

He added that reporters should include key details they probably could not get by calling a prison official.

“I had an editor once who was going through a story I wrote and he told me, ‘The story is OK, but it doesn’t reflect that you were there.’ It was something we could get by calling the prison system and asking them what happened,” Graczyk says, offering examples of what to look for before, during and after an execution.

“Movements they [the inmates] may have made or whether they took a breath or coughed when the drugs took effect. Whether they were looking at people as they came into the death chamber to watch them die. If you get a glimpse of where the needle went in, whether there was a tattoo there. It gives the reader more of a picture of what’s happening …

“When you go in there, you want to tell people what you saw and what you heard. I’ve talked to people who’ve done electrocutions and gas chamber stuff and they can get into the fact that it doesn’t smell very good. But lethal injections are very, very clinical. … You don’t dwell on it, but drop something in to prove to the reader or the listener that you were there.”

 

8 — Have a plan for how to react if a prisoner addresses you personally inside the death chamber.

Because Graczyk interviews inmates many times during the years and weeks leading up to their executions, they know him. To his surprise, a couple have tried to start conversations with him in the death chamber.

“A couple of things happened in there that I didn’t expect and you learn from that. First of all, it’s happened to me at least twice now … When I walked in, they looked up and said hello to me. You need to be prepared for that. You need to know whether you’re going to react to it and how you’re going to react to it. I remember walking in and the inmate said, ‘Hi, Mike!’ What do you say to someone who’s about to die? I was taken aback. The second time, just because I’d been through it once, I think I nodded. Especially if you’re standing next to the relative of a victim, be cognizant. I wouldn’t want to say something totally sympathetic or discourteous.”

 

For more information, see our collection of research that looks at capital punishment from multiple angles, including inmate experiences on death row, factors that affect sentencing and shifts in public opinion about the death penalty.

 

 

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