Reporters Ready to Cover Rare Execution in New England

By: Joe Strupp As New England's first execution in 45 years draws closer, pending further delays, those set to cover the event are dealing with a slew of issues most have never before had to address.

Even though the execution of convicted serial killer Michael Ross, now set for Monday night in Connecticut, is the first in the region since 1960, only five media representatives will witness it. It is likely that few if any of them have ever before seen the death penalty carried out. This, after all, is not Texas.

In addition, because of a provision in Connecticut state law that requires witnesses to be chosen via a lottery system, the state's two largest news organizations, The Hartford Courant and The Associated Press, have been excluded.

"We would like to have been chosen, but we understand we weren't, and we can live with it," said Courant Managing Editor Cliff Teutsch. "It is part of the state regulations." AP spokesman Jack Stokes offered a similar response, saying AP is disappointed at being left out but has not objected to the choices made.

Of those chosen to witness the lethal-injection, two come from newspapers -- The Norwich Bulletin and The Day of New London. Greg Smith, a five-year Bulletin reporter who has been covering the case, said he sees it as his job to view the state-sanctioned killing.

"It is not something I look forward to, but it is the duty of the newspaper, since six of the [eight] killings were in our area," Smith, 33, told E&P Friday. "If I could not see it, it would bother me, because [the case] is something I have covered. It is a big news event, and I am the crime reporter here."

Smith, who has never witnessed an execution and contends he has no personal view on the death penalty, says he does not oppose this execution "because it is the law in this state, and it was such a heinous act."

Ross, 45, who has admitted killing eight young women in the early 1980s, was convicted and sentenced to death for four of the murders. He has chosen not to pursue further appeals, but several appeals have been filed on his behalf by public defenders, and by his father, claiming he is not competent to decide his fate.

Bulletin Executive Editor Jim Kevlin said he chose Smith to represent the paper because of his ties to the case, but would not have forced him or anyone to view the execution. "I think a lot of people [on staff] were resistant to the idea of seeing it," Kevlin said. "It made sense for him to do it."

At the Day, Managing Editor Lance Johnson has assigned 25-year veteran reporter Kenton Robinson to be that paper's witness. Like Smith, Robinson, who could not be reached Friday, also has never viewed such an event.

A Connecticut statute requires that a committee of media representatives from both print and broadcast convene to determine who is chosen to witness an execution. Department of Corrections officials last fall limited the number of media witnesses to five. The committee literally picked names out of a hat in November, according to Jonathan Kellogg, executive editor of The Republican-American in Waterbury, who served on the committee.

As per the state regulation, the committee limited its selection to news organizations that regularly cover statewide news, were located near the site of most of the killings, or regularly cover the Department of Corrections. In the end, the group chose two television stations, a statewide radio network, and the two newspapers.

"That did not preclude anyone from petitioning to the Department of Corrections for a spot, but I don't believe anyone did," Kellogg added. "We tried to come up with as equitable a process as we could."

Along with the challenge of covering a controversial news event that had not occurred in 40 years, Connecticut papers also have to deal with reporting on something that is taking place well after midnight. For many paper, that means late press runs and even special editions.

The execution had originally been planned for 2 a.m. Saturday, but on Friday afternoon it was delayed one day, and later pushed back to Monday.

Ross is being executed at this time only because he has chosen not to pursue further appeals of the case. He could delay the execution again if he asked to renew the appeals process. "He could stand up at any time and say he wants to stop it," Smith said. And there is still a chance that a judge or his lawyer may convince him to do just.


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