July 12, 2007
Reporters are tired of covering Ohio's public executions
By Dan Williamson, Columbus Other Paper
Statehouse news reporters this week held a meeting every bit as laborious as
some of the more tiresome committee hearings they cover in the Ohio
legislature. There were pointed disagreements and nitpicking over language
and procedure-and when the 90-minute meeting adjourned, participants weren't
entirely sure what they'd accomplished.
The issue at hand was one of life and death. Well, death, anyway.
The Statehouse press corps is trying to figure out how-and whether-to uphold
its self-imposed duty to cover executions.
This matter was initially settled about 15 years ago, when Ohio was
preparing for its first implemented death penalty since 1963. The Ohio
Legislative Correspondents Association fought for and won the right to
choose a pool reporter to witness each execution.
Sandy Theis, the former Dayton Daily News and Cleveland Plain Dealer
reporter who was OLCA's president at the time, said the Ohio Department of
Rehabilitation and Corrections' regulations about who was permitted to
witness executions were outdated.
"I think the CJ and UPI were two of the witnesses, and neither one existed,"
said Theis, referring to the now-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal and United
Press International, which no longer covered the Ohio Statehouse. "I think
people realized that OLCA had a responsibility to be the witnesses. We cover
state government, we cover those issues, and there was the belief that with
the privileges you get there were some responsibilities.
So the department agreed to provide a witness seat for a representative
provided by OLCA as well as one for the Associated Press and for the local
paper in the city in which the crime was committed. After watching the
prisoner die, the OLCA pool reporter would then conduct what amounted to a
press conference to answer questions from other correspondents about what
had happened inside the death house.
Back then the hard part was figuring out who would get to go. Reporters are
competitive by nature and, naturally, more than one of them wanted to be
there for what would be one of the biggest stories of the year.
"I do remember how much interest there was in the first one, and I remember
how long we waited for the first one," recalled Lee Leonard, the retired
Columbus Dispatch Statehouse reporter. "We thought early on that Dick
Celeste was going to have to be the first one to kill somebody, and then
George Voinovich-surely it was going to come during his watch, and it
To give all reporters a shot, OLCA came up with a lottery system for each
"OLCA needed to develop some kind of system that was fair so that a fight
wouldn't break out over who got to cover one," Leonard said. "And it wasn't
any different than the competitiveness that you have over any good story."
Sure enough, that first execution-of Wilford Berry on Feb. 19, 1999-was a
huge story, with live TV coverage and front-page treatment in all the
state's papers. Another two years went by before the next execution, that of
J.D. Scott, on June 14, 2001, and that was big news, too.
But by the time John W. Byrd got his turn on Feb. 19, 2002, the novelty was
starting to wear off.
"J.D. Scott was big because it was the next one after Wilford Berry, and I'm
guessing right after that it started going down," recalled Canton Repository
reporter Paul Kostyu, who's now the president of OLCA.
The state killed two more inmates in '02 and another three in 2003 before
jumping to seven in 2004. In all, Ohio has put 26 men to death since the
reinstatement of capital punishment.
"I would say probably after 10 or 12 the interest began to wane," said
Leonard. "Then I think reporters looked around and said, 'Hey this is not
For obvious reasons, watching another person die isn't everybody's cup of
tea. The task was probably even less desirable in the old days, prior to the
state's 36-year hiatus, when inmates were killed in the electric chair at
the Ohio Penitentiary, which could be more gruesome than the lethal
injections of today.
Theis said she once spoke to the late Bob Miller, an AP reporter, who was
turned against the death penalty after he watched one.
"He was the last OLCAn to witness an execution at the electric chair. What
Bob Miller said is he didn't anticipate the smell, and it shocked him,"
Theis said. "Back then I don't think people were mindful of that."
Although state officials now are better at preparing reporters for what they
are about to experience, some have declined to witness executions, and
others who have gone have been disturbed enough that they didn't want to go
Then there are the reporters-perhaps a majority of OLCA members-who opt out
of the execution lottery because their editors aren't interested in the
story and it isn't convenient for them to go.
This has placed the burden on a handful of reporters who are willing to make
numerous treks to the Lucasville death house.
Kostyu said he and the Dispatch's Alan Johnson have a running joke between
them that they're the execution "experts" because they've witnessed so many
"I've witnessed five executions," said Kostyu. "You're selected, and then
the next one comes up and you're selected again, you're going, 'What's the
odds of that?' Well, the odds are pretty great because the pool was so low."
Leonard acknowledged he never witnessed an execution because Johnson was
always willing to do it on behalf of the Dispatch.
"My attitude always was, I'm not lusting after covering an execution," he
said, "but if it comes my way I'll do it, because I think that's a
Theis had a similar viewpoint.
"I don't support the death penalty and would have done my job if I had to,"
said Theis, who now works for a public-policy interest group. "I'm glad I
never had to."
She probably would have had to, had she stayed at the PD. Cleveland's
Statehouse bureau has dwindled from five reporters to three, while other
papers, such as the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Akron Beacon Journal, are
now one-person shops.
"I don't think anybody anticipated what we're seeing today, which is a
shrinking Statehouse press corps and a rise in executions," Theis said.
Tired of sending the same reporters time after time, the OLCA board decided
to propose a new policy.
On June 27 Kostyu and AP reporter Julie Carr Smyth, OLCA's VP, informed
Statehouse reporters they would no longer be allowed to opt out of
witnessing executions or conducting death-row interviews because of
convenience. Only those who objected to watching an execution for personal
reasons could be excused.
The announcement set off a flurry of e-mails from alarmed reporters, and so
Tuesday's meeting was scheduled to discuss the issue.
Kostyu said he doesn't like telling fellow reporters what to do, but he
believes it is crucial for OLCA to meet what he thinks is an important
"The state is executing somebody, and so somebody should be covering it," he
said. "And if it's the Statehouse press corps then that would make sense. I
don't see any other organization out there that would be in a position to do
At Tuesday's meeting, Johnson and other Dispatch reporters were the most
vocal proponents of a stricter policy. They said OLCA members have a duty
not only to their employers but to the public through their fellow
reporters, and the burden needs to be shared.
The opposing faction was led by employees of the Statehouse news service
Gongwer, who said they report
correspondents spending their day in Lucasville rather than a transportation
After much debate, a compromise was reached that would allow news
organizations to opt out of the execution pool-but those organizations will
not be entitled to the OLCA pre-execution interviews or execution pool
Another compromise, advocated by the PD bureau, would allow a news
organization to designate a full-time reporter who is not an OLCA member to
interview condemned prisoners or witness their deaths. That proposal was
adopted without objection.
Theis said a similar idea was rejected when OLCA created the existing
"If you get some very small publication that hires a bunch of rookies-and
there are a lot of papers like that-do you want to hand them that
They're pretty tough."
"I agree wholeheartedly with Sandy," Kostyu said, "because I remember my
first one, which was J.D. Scott. I was more nervous about responding to the
media than I was actually witnessing the thing."
Nevertheless, he sees the compromise as a necessary one to sell OLCA's
reporters-and their editors and
publishers-on a new policy. "We're in this difficult situation," he said.
"We want more participation, but we don't feel like we can tell our member
news organizations, 'You have to do it this way.'"
For now, he and the OLCA board plan to draft a new policy that includes the
compromises reached Tuesday. If members still object, they'll have another
Theis, meanwhile, suggested simplifying things by creating a one-reporter
"It sounds to me like they need to make a change," she said. "Do they want
to just agree that since Alan Johnson does them all and does them well, just
cede that to Alan?"
Source : Columbus Other Paper