5:05am

Sun May 4, 2014
The Sunday Conversation

A Window To Executions: How To Cover Death For A Living

Originally published on Sun May 4, 2014 1:06 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

As a criminal justice reporter for The Associated Press, Michael Graczyk has covered hundreds of executions of death row inmates in the state of Texas. This means, of course, that he must be there to witness those deaths.

This past week, after an execution in Oklahoma went terribly wrong, many people turned their attention again to capital punishment — and to the reporters who cover it. Graczyk is no stranger to botched executions himself, having witnessed at least two in his time reporting.

There are peculiar difficulties that come with covering such grim events for his livelihood.

One of the challenges: Despite viewing so many executions, Graczyk tries to maintain a sense of his responsibilities as a witness to the death of another individual.

"You have to be careful," he says. "You don't want to get into a formula. You want to make it a story that people want to read, either for the record or for the sake of it being an interesting case."

And still, even in the trying moment, he must remember his faculties as a reporter. "As [with] most people who write news stories, you're dealing with time and space considerations, and you want to be careful that you don't miss anything."

Matter-of-factly, he notes: "It can be very challenging at times."

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Transcript

MICHAEL GRACZYK: If we're at a gathering, my wife can always tell when that's the conversation that's going on because all of a sudden, there are a number of people that gather where I might be standing. And it gets very quiet over there. But I try to not initiate the conversation. People may ask, well, what do you do.

I'm a reporter. Oh, what do you cover? Oh, I do this, that or another thing. I cover prisons, blah, blah, blah. And somehow it gets around to the death penalty. Oh, you're the one - very often is the response. Yes. I'm the one.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's Michael Graczyk, a reporter for the Associated Press who has covered hundreds of executions of death row inmates in the state of Texas. This past week after the execution in Oklahoma that went terribly wrong, many people turn to the reporters who witnessed the execution. Besides friends and family of the convicted or their victims, reporters are often the only other people present when death row inmates are executed. Criminal justice reporter Michael Graczyk is our Sunday conversation.

GRACZYK: There have been at least two occasions, years ago where the needle popped out of the inmate's arm as we were standing there. And in fact, the first time it happened was before they had Plexiglas that separated us from the inmate. So I was standing there, a few feet from the inmate, and the needle came out. And the IV starts squirting toward us.

And I remember - and kind of to this day - and it's been, I'll be you 20-some years - I can - everything kind of goes into slow motion. And you can see the solution coming toward you. And your mind is racing. You know, what's going on? What happens if it touches me? Those kinds of thoughts go through your mind.

MARTIN: Can you describe the room where you observe the executions and your vantage point? Is it always the same kind of room?

GRACZYK: It's changed a little bit over the years. It used to be a single room where you were separated from the inmate. And you would stand and watch at a rail with the inmate just a few feet from you. That changed in the early '90s I believe, late, maybe mid-90's when the state made a revision in the law that allowed witnesses for the murder victims to also attend. So they divided that room in half. So if you were looking at the room from above, it would be like in the shape of a T.

And the inmate would be at the horizontal end of the T. And then at the opposite end of him are two, narrow, long rooms with space for people to stand. Despite what you may hear, there are no seats in the death chamber. You stand in very close quarters. It's very narrow. If you were to stand in the center of the viewing area, you could probably stretch your arms out and touch the wall on either side.

So it's pretty tight quarters. And you have to kind of move around to get a glimpse of - or I do because I'm toward the back of the room. You have to move around to try to get a glimpse of his reaction to the drugs. Otherwise, it's very difficult to see.

MARTIN: How do you write these stories? Do they ever start to feel, perhaps, strangely the same?

GRACZYK: There's a certain sameness. Of course, each case is individual, and the circumstances are different. You have to be careful of that. You want - you don't want to get into a formula. You want to make it a story that people want to read either for the record or for the sake of it being an interesting case.

And as most people who write news stories, you're dealing with time and space considerations. And you want to be careful that you don't miss anything. It can be very challenging at times.

MARTIN: You witnessed the execution of a serial killer, Tommy Lynn Sells. And the story you wrote afterwards quoted the father of one of his victims, Terry Harris, whose 13-year-old daughter was fatally stabbed by this man in 1999. Do you recall what he said to you?

GRACZYK: I was the only reporter in the chamber with the family members for that execution. And he remarked, during the process, that whatever pain and suffering that Sells endured on the gurney was far less than what he inflicted upon his daughter, Katie. Once we got outside the prison and there were other reporters there, he had mentioned that basically, the dude just took a nap, is how he put it. That's essentially what happens in executions here when they use the pentobarbital or since they have used the pentobarbital.

Then the inmate will take a couple of breaths, and then begins to snore and looks like he's going to sleep. And each snore gets progressively less pronounced. It can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes before a physician comes in and then examines the inmate and pronounces him or her to be deceased. And then we all leave.

MARTIN: You've seen so many of these now over the years. I still imagine it has to have an emotional impact on you. Have you ever thought about doing something else? I imagine you could have stopped a long time ago.

GRACZYK: Sure, but the saving grace is I don't - this is not the only story or kind of story or subject matter that I do. I do fun things to write stories about. And that kind of takes the pressure off of the capital punishment duties that I have. And, you know, as reporters, media folks there's a certain - I don't want to call it cynicism. But there's a reason why it's called gallows humor. Not to make light of it, but if you take everything too seriously, you'll just go bonkers.

MARTIN: Michael Graczyk is a reporter for the Associated Press in Houston, Texas. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Michael.

GRACZYK: Sure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.