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Media access to execution uncertain as death date nears

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  1. Newsgathering

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Mar 22, 2001    

Media access to execution uncertain as death date nears

  • A federal appeals court has not ruled on state prison officials’ opposition to a witnessed execution with the death date days away.

As the date of Robert Massie’s execution approaches, a federal judge in California refused to reconsider his earlier ruling that will permit the news media and other witnesses to watch as the convicted murderer is put to death.

Massie is scheduled to die by lethal injection on March 27, and state prison officials had hoped to reassert to the judge that complete access to executions endangers the safety of prison workers. Federal district court judge Vaughn Walker’s denial on March 19 has set the stage for an eve of execution hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.).

Last July, the California First Amendment Coalition and others won their case over the right of witnesses to uninterrupted viewing of the execution from the moment Massie enters the chamber until he is pronounced dead. The warden of the San Quentin prison and director of the Department of Corrections appealed. The Ninth Circuit has not yet decided the state’s emergency appeal.

Without the chance to argue its case at the district court again, the state officials filed an emergency appeal to the Ninth Circuit that would compel Walker to suspend the finding for complete access.

Until the federal appeals court acts on either of the two appeals, the execution of Massie will go ahead as scheduled, and before media and other witnesses.

Massie has been serving time since his 1979 conviction for murdering a San Francisco liquor store owner. That sentence marked the second time he was sentenced to death. The state first sentenced Massie to death in 1965 for another murder, but the governor commuted his sentence when the state abolished capital punishment in 1978.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, a plaintiff in the ongoing lawsuit against the state, said it is possible that witnesses may not get complete access to Massie’s execution. Francke said the court may block Walker’s order, effectively preserving the “status quo” until it hears the case.

A decision to restrict access to Massie’s execution would have an effect beyond the newsgathering interests of the media. One of Massie’s victims also wants to attend the execution, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“I want to see the end of this thing,” said Charles Harris, the liquor store clerk who was wounded in the leg on the night of the liquor store shooting.

(California First Amendment Coalition v. Woodford; Media Counsel: David Fried, San Francisco) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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