This story was written as part of The Next To Die, a multi-newsroom collaboration tracking upcoming executions. To see scheduled executions nationwide, please visit https://www.themarshallproject.org/next-to-die
In 1990 as Charles Troy Coleman prepared to die in Oklahoma’s execution chamber, journalists packed into the prison’s media center, some standing on chairs to watch as 12 names were pulled out of a hat.
Helicopters buzzed overhead and floodlights on television live trucks lit up Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s barbed wire-topped white walls. Outside the prison gates, protesters held candles and prayed for Coleman and his victims.
The first inmate to be executed in the state in 24 years, Coleman had drawn a crowd.
In the years since that execution, Oklahoma put to death 108 men and three women, eventually leading the nation in its per capita rate. But as the state’s death chamber became busier, public interest waned and the crowd in the media center thinned.
Some inmates went to their deaths with only two reporters there to bear witness.
In Oklahoma and other death penalty states, unless the inmate was headline worthy — like serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy — most executions drew little notice in the 1990s and early in the new century.
But that trend is rapidly reversing in Oklahoma and elsewhere. As the number of executions has fallen steeply nationwide and public support for the death penalty has wavered, media and public interest have increased.
Last year, 35 people were executed nationwide, the lowest number since 1994, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
A string of botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona as well as exonerations in many states have fueled media coverage and brought more scrutiny of the process.
For Wednesday’s execution of Richard Glossip, about 30 journalists crowded into the Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s media witness center, vying for laptop space on folding tables and squeezing camera tripods into a tight row at the front of the room. A documentary crew from Toronto shot footage of reporters at work.
Word that Glossip had received a stay came three hours before his scheduled execution so a planned drawing for four media witnesses was canceled. With the national focus on Glossip’s case, prison officials expect another crowd if the execution goes forward as scheduled Sept. 30.
A grim, lonely task
As a reporter for the Associated Press in Oklahoma for about a decade leading up to 2006, Kelly Kurt saw the fluctuating public interest in executions firsthand. Kurt, now a freelance photographer based in Tulsa, witnessed 16 executions as an AP reporter.
“When I first started covering executions, which would have been in ’95, there would always be at least three TV trucks and a couple of radio reporters, a reporter from the McAlester newspaper. … You would have the major newspapers and the AP, and at times there would even be foreign media present,” she said.
But that changed as Oklahoma’s death chamber became busier. The peak was in 2001, when 16 men and two women were put to death.
Public interest in executions dropped off and the media followed suit. TV satellite trucks stopped showing up for executions and the hometown newspaper, the McAlester News-Capital, began to skip covering some.
Instead of sending two reporters to cover executions as it had in the past, AP sent one reporter as a witness and hired a local stringer to wait at the media center for the phone call announcing time of death.
For Kurt, the already grim task of covering executions became a lonely one.
“Before the execution, I would interview the victim’s family and over time, newspapers weren’t using those stories as much. Even on a personal level … I would mention I was at an execution and people wouldn’t even know it had taken place,” Kurt said.
Kurt found it surprisingly easy not to dwell on what she had seen, at least at the time. Now, she acknowledges that memories of the executions she witnessed “had a deep impact over time.”
“What surprised me when I first started to witness executions is that I didn’t feel horribly bothered by it. … I was surprised to find myself thinking about what I was going to eat for dinner or what I was going to do the next day right after an execution.”
Keeping up with the pace of executions in Oklahoma “got kind of overwhelming,” she said.
“There were times there where I was witnessing like two a week.” Kurt wrote about the experience in a 2012 article for This Land Press.
Experts say the frequency of executions has a large impact on public interest and thus media coverage.
Christopher Kudlac, professor and chair of the criminal justice department at Westfield (Mass.) State University, explored the issue in a 2007 book: “Public Executions: The Media and the Death Penalty.”
“If you go back to ‘99 and the mid-2000’s, the machinery was just moving non-stop, so that you had to be some sort of special case to stand out,” Kudlac said.
Cases that stood out included serial killers and inmates who became political causes.
In 1989, while Bundy was being strapped into Raiford Prison’s electric chair, an estimated 500 people showed up outside the Florida prison. Most celebrated his death, banging on frying pans and chanting “burn, Bundy burn,” according to media reports.
“There used to be almost this bloodthirsty element surrounding the execution scene,” Kudlac said. “But now it’s the opposite case. It’s so rare now that just the execution itself makes it newsworthy, especially if you are outside of Texas or Missouri.”
(Missouri has now overtaken Oklahoma as the state ranking No. 1 per capita in executions, and Texas led the nation in total executions last year.)
Even for serial killers, factors like race, class and gender appear to play a role in which cases draw media coverage, Kudlac said.
In 1998, Gerald Stano was put to death in the same Florida prison where Bundy’s execution had drawn crowds. Stano had confessed to killing 41 people in three states but “nobody has ever heard of him,” Kudlac noted.
His execution was one of four carried out in Florida during a nine-day stretch that month.
“Stano killed hitchhikers and prostitutes and the media doesn’t care as much about them as Bundy, who killed pretty white college girls.”
Increased public attention to inmates claiming innocence and a growing number of groups opposing the death penalty has helped intensify media coverage.
In the past 40 years, 155 death row inmates have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ten of those inmates were on Oklahoma’s death row.
Social media is also building momentum for inmates fighting execution like Glossip. Instead of being pumped full of lethal drugs on a gurney Wednesday afternoon, Richard Glossip was trending on Twitter.
— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) September 16, 2015
Media coverage following his stay reached more than 700 million people worldwide, according to the media tracking service Critical Mention. Few stories focused on his victim, motel owner Barry Van Treese, whose family has kept a low profile and issued a few statements to various media outlets.
More than 270,000 people signed a MoveOn.org petition calling on Gov. Mary Fallin to grant a stay. Fallin’s office reportedly received thousands of phone calls asking her to stay Glossip’s execution while his attorneys gather evidence for an appeal.
“The movement against capital punishment has been moving so strong. You are almost going against the norm now to actually follow through with it,” Kudlac said.
‘We’re pretty barbaric’
Ironically, as coverage of executions grows, reporters are finding it more difficult to gain access as witnesses.
After the April 29, 2014, botched execution of Clayton Lockett — which an appeals court called a “procedural disaster”— Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections overhauled its policies and remodeled the death chamber. The number of media witnesses was cut from 12 to 5 in the process.
Some reporters are finding other avenues, blurring the line between observer and advocate.
Glossip has listed two journalists on his witness list, usually reserved for friends, family and spiritual advisers. Ian Woods, a reporter for Sky News based in London, wrote a column discussing his friendship with Glossip, developed after interviewing the inmate several times.
“I certainly believe there was not enough evidence to justify a death sentence,” Woods states. “I believe his execution is wrong. And it’s from this perspective that I will watch him die. I cannot claim to be truly objective. There will be other reporters you can turn to for that.”
If Glossip is executed and the journalists remain on Glossip’s witness list, DOC has said Woods and a Huffington Post reporter won’t be allowed inside the media center and can’t bring notebooks inside the prison.
In Europe — where opposition runs high to the death penalty — media outlets have played up Glossip’s story.
The Daily Mirror, in a story headlined “Dead Man Talking,” bragged about its “exclusive” interview with the condemned inmate. (Dozens of reporters have interviewed Glossip, including a reporter from The Frontier, though only a handful have done so in person.)
DOC officials reportedly told the Daily Mirror its reporter wasn’t welcome at the execution after he brought a video camera into the prison without authorization to interview Glossip.
Richard Stack, associate professor at American University’s School of Communication, said European coverage of executions in the United States is driven by public opinion there. Stack has written several books about the death penalty, including “Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance & Victims of Capital Punishment.”
“Their take on American executions is we’re pretty barbaric. That’s their view. They would like to see our death penalty dismantled,” Stack said.
Some inmates receive more coverage than others because they know how to enlist influential advocates.
“Media attention has a lot to do with the supporters of the condemned inmates,” Stack said.
Glossip’s supporters used the court of public opinion before filing anything in an actual court. His attorneys issued a flurry of news releases and held press conferences touting developments in his case, but a motion seeking a stay wasn’t filed until the eve of his execution Tuesday.
The Court of Criminal Appeals cited the late filing in its decision to grant a stay.
Glossip’s supporters including sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose story was told in the film and movie, “Dead Man Walking.” Others who have spoken out for Glossip include TV host Dr. Phil and actress Susan Sarandon, who portrayed Prejean in the movie.
Prejean said Wednesday she’d never heard of Glossip until he contacted her and said he hoped Prejean didn’t mind that he placed her on his execution witness list.
Kurt said in light of botched executions and questionable convictions, it’s more important than ever that reporters stay on the story.
“It makes it even more important for the witnesses in there to do their jobs. My thing is, no matter how you felt about the death penalty, you needed to take the death penalty very seriously. … It’s important that we pay attention to it and important as witnesses we let people know exactly what’s going on.”