The executioner’s choir

April 30, 2014

Oklahoma’s executioners accidentally killed Clayton D. Lockett last night while trying to put him to death.

If I’m certain of anything, I’m certain that dozens (hundreds?) of other journalists seized on the travesty, the tragedy, the ineptitude and the torture of Lockett to either commit similar words to print or compose a similar passage in their heads while taking a shower this morning and cursing themselves for not having been assigned to the spectacular death show.

Lockett, who earned his spot in the queue for shooting a 19-year-old woman and burying her alive in 1999, escaped death by lethal injection because the intravenous line that was supposed to feed the life-taking drugs to his system failed.

The line had blown,” director of corrections Robert Patton said at a press conference later, and a “vein failure” was discovered. Patton halted the execution, but to no avail. Instead of dying from a stopped heart in response to a lethal three-drug cocktail, Lockett, 38, writhing on his gurney, died from a heart-attack 43 minutes after his execution started and about 20 minutes after it was stopped.

Reporters love covering executions because they’re the journalistic equivalent of paint-by-numbers painting. As long as you have the stomach for watching one, your story will be published and read widely. There are so many elements to play with! Like sporting events, to which they can be compared, executions tend to generate both pre-game and post-mortem (sorry!) coverage.

First comes the murder investigation, then the trial and the endless appeals. Stories about the victims almost write themselves, as do stories about the victim’s survivors. Opponents of capital punishment demand their column-inches, too, and these stories don’t need to be written, only transcribed and restacked from activists’ briefs. This also applies to the legal stay stories, the pleas for commutation of sentence, the sermons from the prosecutors about how the convicted is guilty, guilty, guilty.

Execution stories like Lockett’s can run for longer than a decade. If a perpetual journalism machine exists, surely it is fueled by executions.

Even novelists have mined the topic with their true-crime tales, most notably Truman Capote with In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer with The Executioner’s Song. Not everybody applauds the genre. Two decades ago, Ben Bagdikian, a former top editor at the Washington Post and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, dismissed the coverage as sensationalistic. “Viewing execution is too often just easy access to melodrama,” he told the American Journalism Review.

Yet executions have been putting the dead on deadline for almost five centuries, long before the advent of tabloid journalism and the accelerated news cycle. In The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself, historian Andrew Pettegree documents the European appetite for crime stories in the 16th century. Their tastes were like ours — the more sordid the better.

“Many of Europe’s citizens would have witnessed an execution,” Pettegree wrote. “This was part of the ritual of community life: that malefactors be put to death in the places where their crimes were committed.” Woodcuts depicting the crime and the execution “in the manner of a strip cartoon” were popular in the news pamphlets and broadsheets of the era, and remained “pungent” no matter how far away or how long ago the events might have occurred.

The journalistic literature of executions — both botched and completed — has yet to be properly collected. When it is, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1876 long-form account of the Cincinnatian James Murphy, a killer who was hanged twice inside of six-and-a-half minutes one summer afternoon before he was dead, will anchor the book. The rope broke, and the blindfolded Murphy exclaimed, “Why, I ain’t dead — I ain’t dead!” The second hanging, this time with a double rope, ushered Murphy to his reward, and Hearn to a permanent spot in American letters.

No journalist delighted more at the gallows beat than the young Ben Hecht of Chicago newspaper fame, who would go on to write 10 novels, 250 short stories, about 20 plays and more than 70 screenplays. Hecht covered hangings for his newspaper and recycled the executions into his fictions, most notably The Front Page, written with another celebrated former journalist, Charles MacArthur. Hangings also appeared in his memoirs, where he sweetened the dialogue of one noosed killer who was asked if he had any last words before the trap-door opened. “No … not at this time,” Hecht claims the man answered, although history disagrees.

Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk deserves some sort enshrinement for having viewed so many executions – one roughly every three weeks — that he’s lost count. “I really don’t know how many I’ve seen,” he wrote in 2013, “and have no desire to reconstruct a tally.”

A 2009 New York Times story put Graczyk’s number at more than 300, setting some sort of U.S. record. At one execution, the condemned sang “Silent Night” — even though it wasn’t Christmas time. “He got to ‘Round yon virgin, mother and child’ before gasping and losing consciousness. Christmas, for me, never has been the same,” Graczyk wrote.

One of the 300 killed his own kid with poisoned candy. (Motive: life insurance). Another thanked him and other reporters in his final statement for covering his case. Another used his last minutes to spend kind wishes on his family, finishing with, “And the rest of the world can kiss my ass.” Some of the condemned have thanked the Dallas Cowboys for season passes and others recited Bible verses. From the death chamber, one called out Graczyk’s name and asked how he was.

“What do you say to an otherwise healthy man seconds away from death?” Graczyk wrote.

According to Time, 15,717 executions have been carried out in the United States since 1700. Not all of these executions are equal. In his 2007 book, Public Executions: The Death Penalty and the Media, Christopher S. Kudlac explains that media attention peaks when the condemned is a serial killer or involved in a protest case or an act of terrorism. A fourth category — the botched execution — should probably be added to Kudlac’s list. Few journalists would be writing Lockett stories if his killing had gone smoothly.

According to a Boston Globe piece this week, 3 percent of all American executions between 1890 and 2010 were “botched,” including decapitations during hangings and the condemned catching fire during the electric chair ride. In a newsroom somewhere, some reporter is pitching a gallows humor story about the search for safer forms of execution.

Journalists dig executions for the same reason a mortician does: Your dying is our living. Death, be it slow, accidental, premature, mundane or at the end of a hangman’s noose hauls a truckload of drama into a journalist’s work. It provides perfect beginnings, sizzling middles and, as the Lockett story proves, compelling and sometimes surprise endings.

Even the staging of executions is theatrical — with the “performers” framed inside a proscenium arch with a curtain, an audience seated in rows and a specific show-time. Graczyk observed that executions were once midnight shows, but have shifted over the past decades to 6 p.m. so that the prison could avoid paying overtime and the lawyers and judges wouldn’t have to stay up late.

We’ll all be better off when the state finally surrenders its power to kill us. But until it does, do not spare me the pictures of an execution painted by journalists. There’s no bigger story than death, because we all face it, and there’s no greater journalistic triumph than capturing the moment when the light goes dark.


Am I the only person in America who read Your Sparkle Cavalcade of Death (1974) by Robert Shiarella? Now there was an execution book. Send your execution titles to My Twitter feed is an ever-flowing, three-drug death cocktail. Have a sip. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Death row inmate Clayton Lockett is seen in a picture from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections dated June 29, 2011. REUTERS/Oklahoma Department of Corrections/Handout


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Cruel and unusual???? The man shot a young woman with a shotgun then buried her alive. So do I care how he died?

Posted by elsewhere | Report as abusive

Seems odd so many upset??

Posted by mykemu | Report as abusive

“… do not spare me the pictures of an execution painted by journalists. There’s no bigger story than death, because we all face it, and there’s no greater journalistic triumph than capturing the moment when the light goes dark.”

What a crock!

How about: “Let me have the great journalistic triumph of capturing the moment when the light went dark for the 19-year-old woman whom Lockett shot and buried alive”.

Posted by unionwv | Report as abusive

“Putting the dead on deadline.” Vintage Jack Shafer. Haven’t read you since you left Slate. And thanks for the link to Lafcadio Hearn, an old favorite of mine.

Posted by enginist | Report as abusive

It seems like it would be simpler to fix the issues that cause botched electrocutions rather than try and fix the issues that cause botched lethal injections. “Putting someone to sleep” using IV drugs seems more peaceful and clean, but successfully finding a good vein and getting a good IV insertion is harder and more complicated than it would first seem, and I think that’s becoming clearer to all.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive