By: Dorothy Giobbe
ATHICK SKIN is a handy tool for journalists. At its most useful, it smoothes the way for objectivity, helping reporters cover a story without bias or favor.
For those who cover executions, it also can blunt powerful feelings of moral ambivalence or revulsion.
On Jan. 23, Richard Townes was executed by lethal injection for the 1985 murder of a Virginia Beach store clerk.
Two days later, convicted killer Billy Bailey was hanged in Delaware for the 1979 murder of an elderly couple.
On the following day, John Albert Taylor was executed by firing squad in a Utah prison. He had been found guilty of the 1989 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
Witnesses were present at each execution, including reporters for local newspapers and national wire services.
Angelita Plemmer, a 1994 graduate of New York’s Columbia School of Journalism, covered the Townes execution for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Reporting on an execution, she said, is something “journalism school doesn’t prepare you for.”
Notebook in hand, Plemmer watched from an observation chamber with 12 other witnesses as Townes was strapped to the execution gurney.
“He was calm and quiet. He got on the table, and then the death team descended on him like a pack of dogs and immediately began strapping him down,” Plemmer said. “It’s like a frenzy.”
A curtain closed as officials searched for a vein to inject Townes. Plemmer said they apparently had some difficulty because 22 minutes later, the curtain rose to reveal Townes with bandages on both arms and the injection apparatus attached to the top of his right foot.
“I found it very disturbing because it’s so sterile and clinical,” Plemmer said. “You realize you’re not watching an animal being euthanized ? you’re watching a human being.”
Not everyone thought the scene was morbid. An older male witness took an extra special interest in Plemmer, complimenting her repeatedly and suggesting that they might stay in touch after the execution.
“He was awful friendly for an execution,” Plemmer laughed.
Hanging in Delaware
Carlos Holmes covered Bailey’s hanging for the Dover Delaware State News. Just before midnight on the 24th, he rode a bus to a high fenced-in area outside of the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna.
When Holmes and the other witnesses arrived, Bailey was already standing on the platform of the gallows. His arms were bound to his side and he was flanked by two guards wearing black hoods.
“The whole thing was eerie ? it was a cold, windy night,” Holmes remembers. “The wind kept whipping this plastic tarp there, and that was the sound we heard.
“Bailey kept swallowing,” Holmes said. “I thought he was nervous, but then I heard that they took his teeth out so that he wouldn’t [bite his tongue].”
At about 12:01 a.m., the guards walked Bailey to the trapdoor of the gallows. They bound his legs, put a black hood over his head and fitted a noose around his neck. Holmes noticed one of Bailey’s fists was repeatedly flexing and balling.
“Then they moved away from him and to our surprise the warden walked over and pulled the lever, and Bailey went.
“There was no sound of his neck snapping. He dropped down, his body turned clockwise a few times and then counterclockwise a few times, then swung back and forth like a pendulum, and then stopped.”
Holmes, who describes himself as anti-capital punishment, said he kept his attention focused on recording the details of the execution.
“It’s my job to report. That means my personal feelings have to go to the side,” he said. “When his body dropped, my heart went boom, but I’m working, taking notes; I’m in this work mode. And after the initial shock of him dropping, I was still taking notes, taking down observations.”
A few hours later, Holmes was having breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant when he was flooded with emotion.
“It really hit me. I was just sitting there ? kind of comatose ? there was such a mixture of feeling. There was an element of revulsion, and a hatred for the death penalty system.
“I’ve never seen a man die before,” Holmes explained. “Being there, I had the sense that I was soiled. I felt dirty by having to witness it and it almost made me feel like a participant.”
Associated Press correspondent Matt Brown was in Utah to cover the first execution by firing squad since Gary Gilmore was put to death in 1977.
Brown was in the witness chamber when a curtain opened to reveal John Albert Taylor, 6-ft. 261-lb, strapped to a metal chair with mesh seating.
A white target was affixed to his dark blue uniform. A metal pan had been placed under the chair to capture his blood.
Guards placed a hood over Taylor’s head. “It was about 45 seconds from the time they placed the hood over his head and the shooting that made the most impact on me,” Brown said
“It seemed like it took minutes . . . . It was the eeriest scene. He was sitting there alone while they’re setting their sights.”
The marksmen fired, and it was over.
“His clothing darkened a little. The blood didn’t splatter and there was no screaming,” Brown said. “It was dramatic and unforgettable and had a lot of impact, but it wasn’t like some guy getting shot in the street.”
Like Holmes, Brown said there wasn’t time to reflect on his personal feelings while covering the execution.
“You’re there and you’re part of the intensity,” he said. “I think most experienced journalists can put their opinions aside and do a fair job on news events.”
Theresa Humphrey, Delaware correspondent for the Associated Press, also covered at the Bailey hanging.
A veteran of six executions, she says it is one of the most difficult events for a reporter to cover.
“After you do the first one, you pretty much have an idea of how it will go,” she said. “It’s not dramatic, but it’s a tough assignment, because you have to capture the minute details.
“You’ve got to watch every little movement, watch the witnesses, everything. You really have to be focused.”
Humphrey also feels strongly that reporters should not discuss their personal feelings on capital punishment.
“It’s inappropriate, because that labels you as biased.
“As reporters, it’s up to us to go in and do our job. That’s what we do and that’s all that we should do.”
?(Convicted murderer John Albert Taylor (top) was executed on Jan. 26. Witnessing the execution was AP correspondent Matt Brown. Convicted killer Billy Bailey (above) was hanged in Delaware on Jan. 25. Reporters Carlos Holmes and Theresa Humphrey were witnesses) [Pphoto & Caption]
?(“You’ve got to watch every
little movement, watch the witnesses, everything. You really have to be focused.”) [Caption]
?( ? Theresa Humphrey, Delaware correspondent for the Associated Press, who covered the Bailey hanging) [Photo & Caption]
?(How the Delaware State News covered the Billy Bailey hanging. The
story ran inside the paper as opposed to the front page) [Photo & Caption]
?(“His clothing darkened a little. The blood didn’t splatter and there was no screaming. It was dramatic and unforgettable and had a lot of impact, but it wasn’t like some guy getting shot in the street.”) [Caption]
?(? Matt Brown, Associated Press correspondent who
covered the Taylor execution) [Photo & Caption]