Watching is too much to bear

The jurors who decided Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh should die have been talking about the trauma of weighing a man's life. But they will not see the execution. Journalists nominated as `media witnesses' at executions do watch men die, and sometimes it can break them. By Helen Rumbelow
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The Independent Online
In America nothing much has changed the popular image of journalists as cynical, bloodthirsty and a little bit glamorous since the film His Girl Friday. The gallows humour of the hard-hearted reporters as they savour the prospect of watching an execution the next morning eventually drives the girlfriend of the condemned to throw herself out the window.

"They ain't human," she screams.

"I know," replies Rosalind Russell, "they're newspapermen."

But the film is a comedy and neither the reporters nor the audience do actually have to witness the hanging. But in reality, American journalists have been sitting and watching state executions as public representatives since a New York statute in 1835, and some are called to see up to 20 in the course of a career. Being a "media witness" is an unholy extreme of their professional practice that makes journalists question their work, their politics, their own lives, and leaves some feeling as if blood will leak permanently from their pens. The problem is not that reporters "ain't human", but that they are.

In Britain we don't have to deal with the media coverage of state executions, although one could imagine matters of taste would jump straight out of the window if we did. In America something a little more disturbing than cheap sensationalism has emerged: indifference. A brief campaign for televised executions was rejected by the courts in 1992, and now it is down to the power of the word to make these events come alive.

The word is failing. News stories on executions have been steadily sliding from front pages into brief bulletins buried deep in the paper, and as journalists struggle to give their stories more gravitas than the traffic report, so reporters divide into two camps, each as convinced of their righteousness as those who argue over the death penalty itself.

The first are the hard-boiled "newspapermen", unchanged in essence since the chroniclers of the mean streets and naked cities of the Forties. Sam Stanton, 36, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, is a good example. "This is not something you're experiencing," he says of being a media witness for the first time at the execution of Robert Alton Harris in California in 1992, "this is a story you're covering."

His unflinching account of the precise physical changes throughout that execution won him a Best Newswriting award that year, and he has since witnessed three more executions. His motivation for being in these death chambers is a mixture of ambition and duty. He wanted to get a good story, and he also felt the story needed to be told. As a 1996 lawsuit filed by Californian press associations to prevent guards from drawing a curtain during any moment of the killing said, "execution is the ultimate act of the public". The hard-boiled school believes that it is the ultimate act of reporting to watch a death and remain objective.

"I'm not there for me," Stanton says. "I'm there for the public. My feelings don't matter." Stanton considers it a source of pride that he has never disclosed his views on the death penalty, and is gratified that those for and against the death penalty complain about his stories in equal numbers.

As a young journalist at the Miami Herald, Ellen McGarrahan, now 32, was also playing the part of the hard-bitten reporter who wrote tough until she covered an execution in 1990. Afterwards, she felt unable to continue as before, and left journalism for two years while she reappraised her life and the morality of her role as reporter. "To see an execution made me look at life differently. It made me question everything I'd been told. I couldn't keep doing it until I'd answered that problem."

After leaving Miami and a fast-track career in political reporting to restore stonework in San Francisco, McGarrahan realised that she was in fact doing something very natural: grieving.

"That is the thing that really came around and kicked my butt," she says. "Forget the reporter, forget the criminal, forget the big news story, I put up my hand and said, `Yeah, I'll go watch someone die.' That seems to me to be a very arrogant thing to do, even though it was part of my job."

Witnessing the execution was "part of the job" as McGarrahan covered politics in Florida's state capital. Veteran reporters told her that the man would simply jolt backwards in his chair when they flicked the switch, and it would just be over.

But McGarrahan had a bad night. Counsellors who brief journalists at San Francisco's San Quentin prison say nightmares and insomnia are common problems in media witnesses, and the night before the dawn execution, McGarrahan had a vivid dream. In it, reporters were led past a corpse in a prison cell and forced to lean down and take a bite out of the body.

"At that point, I would have backed out," she says. "But it became a question of news. I couldn't think how to explain to my editor why I had sat it out. The reporter took over."

At dawn the five media witnesses gathered in front of the prison. The man from the Tampa Tribune arrived wearing a black suit, explaining he was there for a funeral. This prompted the other reporters to go back to their cars to change into something more formal.

The scene that followed was, McGarrahan remembers, "the worst thing I could possibly imagine". "The electrocution was bungled by the use of old sponges, and it took three power surges to kill the man, each accompanied by flames that burned his head."

The story was simple and she wrote it fast. But back in the newsroom she was trained in, McGarrahan was ashamed to find her experience had touched her personally. Then she was galled by her presumption that it would not. "That's what really amazes me about other reporters who witness executions and say `it's just part of the job.' But they just saw another human being die."

Her colleagues noticed McGarrahan was losing her mettle, and so encouraged her to witness another execution, "to get this one off your mind". Instead she left her job, although she is now back as senior writer at the San Francisco Weekly, in a more reflective mode. She admits what many reporters, such as Stanton, will not admit, that what she saw was "just a staggeringly gruesome thing", and she reveals what most reporters refuse to, that her pro-death penalty views were changed by what she saw. McGarrahan cringes now when she hears the old newsroom gallows humour. "They stop connecting with what they write about - it's all just news, and I think it comes back around on them."

Kevin Fagan, who has witnessed three executions for the San Francisco Chronicle, knows the toll. He says he feels older than his years as a result. "As a reporter, I'm supposed to be a camera, a literary camera. It takes a lot of toughening to do that objectively."

Fagan tries to cope by seeing the executions as part of a broader education that "scopes out the depth of the good and bad side of life". It's an approach Michael Kroll, a journalist-turned-director of the Death Penalty Information Centre believes journalists should use in their writing. He thinks that the struggle for a poker face means the reporter gets the story all wrong, dwelling on the pain the condemned suffers at the moment of execution. They miss the wider context, says Kroll, by letting death's natural drama dominate. It's becoming, he thinks, like a TV cop show.

And, like a TV cop show, the formula is getting a bit old. Public interest is waning. In 1996, at the fourth execution in California since the restoration of the death penalty, some news organisations refused their invitations to attend. Fagan receives letters from readers accusing him of being sick for watching a man die. "They pay for it!" he says. "So I think that's offensively hypocritical. We can't let the process go on behind a curtain like putting a dog to sleep."

Despite successful media campaigns to keep the executions open to the press, Michael Kroll thinks that journalists might provide more informed coverage if they were kept away from the death scene. He witnessed an execution in 1992, and remembers that privately, the journalists present were "distraught and destroyed" by what they saw.

"But all the public got were these minute-by-minute accounts of a smile at 12:05 am, a finger twitching at 12:07. You could record that with a camera. What is the point of having humans there if we don't get a sense of what it is to be human?"

The execution she witnessed still haunts Ellen McGarrahan. She can no longer bear to watch violence on television, but she can see black smoke puff from San Quentin prison in San Francisco, and sees the media teeming on execution mornings. She takes comfort from the words of Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose experiences were the inspiration for the film Dead Man Walking, whom McGarrahan met when she left the prison just after the execution.

"I just dropped the whole reporter guise, and said, `Sister, I felt very culpable for having sat there.' She said, `Bear witness to it'."

But to give "a sense of what it is to be human" is hard for a journalist. And it is hard to write humanely if execution seems to have become more and more like a repeat of an old film. Bearing witness can sometimes be too much to bear.