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From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 53.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 53.

When a death row inmate in Texas walks the final steps from the holding cell to the execution chamber, one thing is almost always certain: Associated Press reporter Mike Graczyk is there.

On Feb. 3, 1998, he joined members of the media from around the world at the execution of Karla Faye Tucker. The pickax killer who became a born-again Christian in prison, Tucker was the first woman executed in Texas since 1863. Her death prompted an international debate about capital punishment.

Nine days later, Steven Renfro apologized to his victims’ families before execution staff injected him with a lethal dose of drugs. Without much media attention, Renfro died willingly after requesting the death penalty at his trial.

On June 22 last year, Gary Graham, a convicted murderer who vehemently maintained his innocence while in jail, was handcuffed to the gurney and executed. His plight drew celebrity support and that of civil rights activists.

Whether it is a high profile prisoner like Tucker, or one of the many inmates whose unclaimed bodies are buried in the prison cemetery, Graczyk has covered more than 200 executions since he started working for The Associated Press in Houston more than 17 years ago.” It’s not something you ask for,” Graczyk said. “It comes with the territory.”

As bureau chief in Houston, Graczyk covers territory in southeast Texas that extends to Huntsville, a city about 60 miles to the north. At the male maximum-security Terrell Unit in nearby Livingston, 449 death row inmates currently serve the remainder of their days. Seven female inmates await execution at another facility. On the day of their executions, guards transport them to The Walls, the prison in downtown Huntsville that now houses the state’s only execution facility.

They are places Graczyk has grown to know well.

On Wednesday afternoons, reporters have a two-hour window to meet with death row inmates. Reporters file a request with the public information office to interview a particular prisoner. The office then seeks the inmate’s consent. New death row inmates must wait for an “adjustment” period of 30 days.

“Our ability to speak to inmates is really up to the inmates,” Graczyk said.

When meeting with prisoners, the press has a great deal of freedom, Graczyk said. With the inmate’s written approval, the news media can take pictures or videos. Reporters can also record and take notes during interviews. With the general prison population, reporters may meet with inmates without any time restrictions.

Graczyk described the overall atmosphere as “quite media-friendly.” In return, prison officials ask that the news media abide by a dress code. No shorts, tank tops, T-shirts or open-toed shoes are allowed. For women, skirts or dresses may not fall more than three inches above the knee. Nor can the media take or receive anything from prisoners.

“We rarely have any sort of conflicts in dealing with the folks over there,” he said in describing the relationship with prison officials. “I’ve seen TV crews pretty much set up a studio, with the amount of equipment.”

One look at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site shows the openness the state conveys about its prison system. With current execution details, along with a list of death row inmates’ last meals and final words, the state that executes more prisoners than any other maintains meticulous statistics about its operations. Texas executed 40 prisoners last year. Six inmates have been executed in 2001 with eight more scheduled through August.

The flow keeps Graczyk busy. Five media representatives can witness executions. With a spot always reserved for the AP, Graczyk’s name appears on the media witness list next to every scheduled execution. His observations in the witness room have made him a popular source in stories about capital punishment. And always assured a spot, Graczyk goes into every execution with the assumption that he will act as pool witness afterwards and brief his colleagues about what he saw.

What a reporter can actually see while at an execution is in dispute in other states. In Texas, witnesses view the process only after guards strap the inmate to the execution gurney. Similar practices have prompted the press in states such as California and Oregon to demand uninterrupted access. But not so in Texas, Graczyk said. Again, he attributed it to the conduct of prison officials, who he said are very open about discussing difficulties with prisoners.

Besides, Graczyk said, it is “readily apparent when an inmate puts up a fuss going in.” He looks to see if the inmates clothes are disheveled or if the inmate is wearing additional restraints. Although he did not see guards wheel Gary Graham into the death chamber, Graczyk later reported that given the extra restraints and his wrinkled shirt, Graham must have resisted.

Graczyk pointed out that he doesn’t only report about executions, but he realizes the importance of media witnesses who perform a watchdog function “in case something does go wrong.”

“I hope it never becomes so routine that the state is allowed to take someone’s life without anyone noticing,” he said. — ML