By: David Noack
A Tallahassee newsman wants to videotape and photograph electric chair executions.
He says state rules prohibiting cameras are not valid because of a legislative oversight.
In a case that could pave the way for newspaper photographers to cover executions, a Florida journalist is challenging a Department of Corrections rule banning photography equipment in the death chamber.
Mike Vasilinda, who owns and operates Capitol News Service, is seeking the right to have a television camera present at executions. If he succeeds, still cameras, artists’ equipment and tape recorders would also be allowed. Capitol News is a Tallahassee-based television video production firm that provides news reports to most NBC affiliates in the state.
Florida uses the electric chair for executions; four inmates were put to death in March.
“The public has a right to have the light of day shown upon the exercise of this very awesome, ultimate power of the state,” said Vasilinda, who has witnessed three executions during his career. He is contesting a 1977 Corrections Department rule barring all forms of video and audio gear, even artists’ paraphernalia, from the area where witnesses view executions. His legal challenge is slated to be heard by an administrative law judge later this month.
He claims the departmental rule was not properly adopted because the legislature failed to take all the actions required to fully authorize it.
In response, state lawmakers are scrambling to adopt a bill to prevent cameras from covering executions. The state attorney general’s office is also arguing against allowing cameras in the death chamber.
In interviews, Florida newspaper editors generally line up on the side of photo access. They want to be able to make decisions about whether or not to send a photographer to cover an execution without government interference. At the same time, they admit that the decision to actually publish death chamber images in the newspaper involves editorial issues of judgment, taste, community sensibilities and news value.
“To me it’s a public right-to-know issue,” explained Vasilinda. “A couple of letters to the St. Petersburg Times accused me of wanting to put executions on television. I know of no responsible television station in Florida that would televise an execution at the actual moment of death.”
He has not solicited support from any other media organizations and, so far, none has been offered.
None of the 38 states that have the death penalty allow cameras at executions.
Last week, a federal appeals court in California ruled that officials can conduct part of an execution behind a curtain and out of the view of reporters and other witnesses.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 3-0 ruling, said that the public and news media have little ? if any ? constitutional right to witness an execution, although the jurists stopped short of deciding whether a state could bar reporters from executions altogether.
‘Ultimate exercise’ of power
The decision overturned the March 1997 ruling of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who wrote that an execution was “the ultimate exercise of state power short of war,” and “must be visible to the press as the public’s representatives, from start to finish.”
Doug Clifton, executive editor of the Miami Herald, believes that while there is a “legitimate public purpose” in having journalists witness executions, having cameras record the event is another question.
“I don’t see the public purpose in allowing us to photograph those executions,” he said. “I can’t imagine a circumstance that would make me want to run an execution photo.”
Phil Lewis, managing editor of the Naples Daily News, said he doesn’t foresee running an execution photograph in the newspaper. “If they sent me a press pass saying that you can have a cameraman at the next one (execution) I wouldn’t send one, but that’s a decision I’d like to make,” he said.
Bob Shaw, managing editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, said he supports the right of camera access to executions but would think “long and hard” about publishing an execution photograph. “I think many, many of my readers would have real concerns about seeing a picture like that on the front page of their newspaper,” said Shaw. But he did not absolutely rule out the publication of such photos.
“I was living in Tallahassee in 1978 when Ted Bundy came through here,” he said. “At the time, I was a reporter for the Miami Herald. I could see an argument (over running an execution photo) if cameras had been allowed when Bundy was executed. I think that editors at the Democrat would seriously have discussed whether to print that picture because Bundy’s impact on this community was so great.”
?( Do news organization have the First Amendment right to photograph the execution that take place in this Florida electric chair?) [Photo & Caption]
?(Mike Vasilinda of Capitol News Service wants to wants to videotape Florida’s executions.) [Photo & Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 9, 1998) [Caption]