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Oklahoma allows fewer journalists to see executions

Jan 10, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

The eyes of the world will be upon Oklahoma next Thursday. And, no, it’s not because of a terrifying act of Mother Nature that killed dozens or wiped towns off the map.This time, all eyes will be focused on the death chamber in McAlester, where Charles Warner is expected to be strapped a gurney to die by lethal injection for the 1997 rape and murder of 11-month-old Adrianna Waller, the daughter of his roommate. Already The New York Times has RSVP’d. A newspaper in Japan has inquired about attending, as has Al Jazeera America. In all, 30 to 40 media representatives are likely to vie for just five front-row seats.

By Janelle Stecklein CNHI State Reporter | Posted 20 hours ago

OKLAHOMA CITY — The eyes of the world will be upon Oklahoma next Thursday. And, no, it’s not because of a terrifying act of Mother Nature that killed dozens or wiped towns off the map.

This time, all eyes will be focused on the death chamber in McAlester, where Charles Warner is expected to be strapped a gurney to die by lethal injection for the 1997 rape and murder of 11-month-old Adrianna Waller, the daughter of his roommate.

Already The New York Times has RSVP’d. A newspaper in Japan has inquired about attending, as has Al Jazeera America. In all, 30 to 40 media representatives are likely to vie for just five front-row seats.

Admittedly it’s morbid, but media representatives are expected to come out of the woodwork to watch Warner die — just in case there’s another botched execution involving a controversial drug cocktail expected to include the sedative midazolam.

Normally an execution like Warner’s would draw little notice in a part of the country where the death penalty is an accepted fact of life. Usually only five journalists or so make the long drive to the death chamber about two hours southeast of Oklahoma City.

But Warner will always have an asterisk next to his name as the first slated to die after last year’s clumsy execution of Clayton Lockett. That procedure lasted 43 minutes, left the killer writhing on the gurney and resulted in panicked prison officials closing the blinds so that no one selected to watch the procedure actually saw him take his final breaths.

While the feeling may prevail in many circles that Lockett got what he deserved, the fiasco generated worldwide publicity, leading the state Department of Corrections to overhaul its execution procedure.

That included expanding and modernizing the death chamber — at the expense of media witnesses.

Media representatives arguably are the only unbiased witnesses, tapped to watch the final phase of the state’s harshest penalty and relay that information to the public. Unlike prosecutors, the victim’s family or the family of the offender, who are also allowed to attend, the media has no real dog in the fight.

But this time, instead of a dozen media witnesses, there will only be five. That’s plenty during a typical execution, but likely way too few for those who want to follow Warner’s last moments.

Most Oklahoma media outlets are fine with the change, as long as there is a fair selection of witnesses, said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.

The process gives preference to a media representative from the market where the crime occurred, then to The Associated Press, the national wire service and news cooperative whose members include most daily newspapers.

Others are selected by lottery, with preference given to Oklahoma media outlets.

Those not selected wait in a room to be briefed by their five colleagues about what occurred.

“I think it’s more in line with what other states do,” Thomas said of the number of media now allowed to witness executions.

Texas, the country’s most active death penalty state, also allots five spots for media. One is reserved for The Associated Press, then preference is given to The Huntsville Item, the hometown paper where the executions occur. The three remaining spots go to journalists from where the crime happened.

In Colorado, five media witnesses are selected. One is a wire service representative, the second represents a small newspaper, the third is from a major daily paper, the fourth comes from radio and the fifth is from TV. As in Oklahoma, all must agree to share their information with those excluded.

A state that doesn’t specifically allocate seats to media is Missouri, which allows up to five witnesses from the public, selected by the director of corrections. The only restriction is that witnesses must be at least 21.

A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections said the director usually picks four or five members of the media to attend as public witnesses.

What concerns Oklahoma media outlets, Thomas said, is if the state literally continues to close the blinds on executions, preventing witnesses from seeing what happens in an inmate’s final moments.

“You can cut the number of witnesses to five, but when your process to execute people is not working well, we just don’t do it in secret,” he said. “That needs to be remedied. The state should be looking to remedy that quickly.

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