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Media witnesses see complete execution of convicted murderer

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Mar 29, 2001    

Media witnesses see complete execution of convicted murderer

  • With a final appeal by prison officials turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court, reporters retained the right to observe an entire execution first-hand.

Despite a campaign by state prison officials to restrict access to executions, the news media and others on March 27 witnessed the execution of convicted murderer Robert Lee Massie. In denying the state’s emergency request to conceal the preparation stage of the execution, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor let stand a federal judge’s ruling that witnesses have a constitutional right to view the entire execution process.

With the complete access order of a federal district court judge intact, witnesses watched as execution staff led a shackled Massie into the execution chamber, strapped him to a gurney and, shortly after midnight, injected him with the lethal drugs.

David Kravets, an Associated Press reporter in San Francisco, was one of the 17 journalists who witnessed the execution. Kravets explained why the press wanted to see the process in its entirety.

“The bottom line is that when the government kills somebody, whether you believe in the death penalty or not, that it is the ultimate act that a government can do on its own citizenry,” Kravets said. “The public has a right to know what the state actually does when it kills somebody.”

Prison officials had argued in court that complete access to executions endangers the safety of prison workers. To protect their identities, the five voluntary participants in Massie’s execution removed their identification badges, Kravets said. During previous executions, the executioners were shielded from view.

The right to view Massie’s execution was a hard-fought battle for members of the news media and First Amendment advocacy groups. The San Quentin prison’s practice of allowing witnesses to view the execution process only after the prisoner had been strapped to the gurney and the intravenous needles had been inserted prompted media organizations to sue for uninterrupted access from the start of the process.

After a ruling in favor of the media at the district court last July, state prison officials appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.). While the appeal awaited review, and with Massie’s execution date quickly approaching, officials sought to block the federal court order. But both the Ninth Circuit and Justice O’Connor, acting for the U.S. Supreme Court, denied emergency motions on March 26.

Massie, who was twice sentenced to death and has spent the last 30 years on death row, fought to drop all of his appeals in protest of California’s automatic appeal process for capital punishment cases.

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

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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