The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The state said an execution happened ‘without complication.’ Reporters in the room had a different story.

The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
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Joseph Brown dreads every single execution he has to witness.

But as editor of the Huntsville Item, he is guaranteed one of five media witness spots reserved for executions at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, just a couple of miles from his newsroom. So he has dutifully witnessed 19 of them since he took his job four years ago.

“It’s the same reason a reporter covers a town council meeting: just to be a watchdog,” he said. “Because if the government can go and execute someone and no one but government-employed people get to view it, Lord knows what can happen.”

Brown is one of a handful of reporters who regularly witness executions — a macabre assignment that often requires journalists to “leave your emotions at the door,” as he put it — in order to provide an objective account of what happens when the state puts someone to death.

The importance of media witnesses was underscored Thursday during the Oklahoma execution of John Marion Grant, a 60-year-old man convicted of the 1998 killing of a prison cafeteria worker. The Associated Press’s Sean Murphy and four other media witnesses recounted what they saw — how Grant convulsed and vomited during the execution — during a news conference for other journalists covering the death.

Oklahoma death row inmate convulsed, vomited during lethal injection, witness says, as state resumes executions

It was a striking detail given the state’s recent history of botched executions and use of the wrong drugs — and it was a detail conspicuously missing from the state’s first official summary, which said that Grant’s execution “was carried out in accordance with Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ protocols and without complication.”

The department’s chief, Scott Crow, attempted to reconcile that statement with Murphy’s startling account during a news conference Friday afternoon, saying that “there were no instances of unusual behavior” other than “regurgitation,” which is “not uncommon when someone is undergoing the process of sedation.”

Representatives for the Department of Corrections and the state’s attorney general’s office did not reply Friday to questions from The Washington Post.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a D.C.-based nonpartisan research organization, said many states have become increasingly secretive in how they carry out executions, so “the need for neutral eye witnesses is at its height.”

That is especially important in Oklahoma, said Kathryn E. Gardner of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. A grand jury determined that Oklahoma committed grave errors in the way it administered executions by injection in 2014 and 2015, the last of which prompted then-Gov. Mary Fallin (R) to declare a temporary moratorium on executions and inmates to demand more information about the lethal drug used. Grant, who had been serving a 130-year prison sentence for armed robberies when he killed Gay Carter, is the first execution since then.

“The government has an obligation to adhere to the constitutional mandate against cruel and unusual punishment when carrying out executions,” Gardner said in an email. Reporters ensure “the government cannot hide from public scrutiny when things go wrong.”

Media eyewitnesses have been a feature of state and federal executions for decades, and almost every death penalty state has some kind of law or regulation about allowing media witnesses, Dunham said. In Georgia, five journalists can be present and the policy specifically states one of them should be a representative from the Associated Press — a common practice in many other states, including Tennessee, which allows up to seven members of the media, selected by drawing. In Florida, the Florida Association of Broadcasters and the Florida Press Association each select five members as witnesses, in addition to one AP reporter.

Although most states have the death penalty, most have abolished or paused executions in recent years. Texas has carried out more executions than any other state, which may be one reason that they “are not very well covered by the media,” Brown said — they happen too often to be considered big news.

From 2019: Most states have the death penalty. Few actually carry out executions.

The pandemic has also made things somewhat complicated for journalists covering executions; Alabama this month said it would only allow one media witness, citing covid-19 concerns.

But Brown, of the Huntsville Item, also cited the financial strains within the news industry, where shrinking newsrooms have left reporters stretched too thin in what they can cover. Many of the executions that he has attended have only been witnessed by only one other reporter, Michael Graczyk, a former Associated Press journalist who is now a freelance writer and has witnessed more than 400 executions in Texas.

Because of that record, Graczyk has become a national expert on executions; he told the AP’s Murphy that he could only remember one other time that someone vomited while being executed.

At one Texas execution, there were no media witnesses; the state forgot to escort Graczyk and Brown into the chambers to see 41-year-old Quintin Jones’s death by lethal injection in May, blaming a miscommunication error.

It was something that “never should have happened,” Brown said, noting that policies have been changed to make sure they aren’t forgotten again.

“An execution is the greatest punishment that the justice system can levy,” Brown said. It shouldn’t simply be that “people go into a black box and die,” he said.