A group of four Arkansas journalists visited with the University of Central Arkansas community Nov. 15 about the recent April executions of four inmates who were put to death by the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
Hosted by students in a press and public affairs class at the university, KATV’s Marine Glisovic, THV11’s David Lippman, KARK and FOX16’s Jessi Turnure and KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman took the room through their experiences with the execution process.
In February, Gov. Asa Hutchinson — who said he was required by law to set the dates — approved the execution dates for eight inmates in the span of 11 days: Don Williams Davis and Bruce Earl Ward for April 17; Ledelle Lee and Stacey Eugene Johnson for April 20; Jack Harold Jones and Marcel Williams for April 24; and Kenneth D. Williams and Jason F. McGehee for April 27.
Lee’s execution was the first inmate since 2005 to be executed due to legal challenges and difficulties in getting the needed execution drugs. Marcel and Jones were the second and third and Kenneth was the last and final. All other inmate executions were halted.
The forum was open to the public and gave a glimpse into the process and challenges the reporters experienced.
When Lippman heard about the state’s decision to execute eight in 11 days he was a bit surprised and had a sense of doubt because it had been 12 years since the previous execution had occurred but knew regardless of the outcome, the entire situation would bring a lot of attention due to the agenda.
He said everyone in the newsroom was ready to work and while they weren’t aware of what their assignments were going to be, knew they were going to be involved.
Turnure said she was thrust into the moment and was forced to learn everything she could about the process as fast as she could.
"I honestly jumped at the chance to cover it because, really, how often does the state put eight men to death in the span of 11 days, or at least try?" she said. "I knew from a journalistic standpoint, it would be a great learning experience."
Despite the eagerness, several challenges presented themselves to the group.
Kauffman said Arkansas media laws are more restrictive than other states and at first, they weren’t even allowing the media witnesses to attend the executions with notebooks and writing utensils, which they ended up rescinding at the last minute but that was just one example of how the state made it difficult for the media to record what was going on.
Glisovic noted other chaotic ways ADC handled the media such as the two phones that were to be used among dozens of reporters, codes required to dial out, internet issues, having to run outside to meet other members of the crew to inform them, making sure not to miss what was going on inside and more.
Moderators asked the reporters what the importance was of having the media attend the controversial occurrence.
"You’re the eyes and ears of the people, to make sure the process was followed as it was supposed to be, that it worked as it was supposed to be done, that the inmate didn’t feel undo pain, that everything the state says happened, actually happened or didn’t," Lippman said.
Lippman was a media witness to the Jack Jones execution.
"It was my responsibility to be writing down everything he did," he said. "Every single thing he was doing."
During Jones’s execution, Lippman said he was breathing heavily or gasping for air and that became controversial, leading to lawsuits on whether or not there was a need to stop the next execution.
"I knew that my record might be determining the result of these court cases," he said. "It’s on me to make sure I know every little thing that happens and can explain exactly what happened."
Knowing the weight of their jobs, they said, made it easier to separate their emotions from what was happening right in front of them.
Turnure said it was her job, what she had to do and do right.
"After you’re finished watching the execution, it’s not like you get to go home," she said, adding she didn’t fully process she had seen someone die until after she got home.
Glisovic agreed and said knowing that she had a job to do kept her emotions in check.
"When you’re actually covering it, and I’ve said this from day one after I witnessed it, that it was the longest, yet quickest 11 minutes of my life," she said. "As a journalist, you just have no time to actually comprehend or understand what you’re watching."
Glisovic said she was fixated on watching the time, IVs, finger movements, people inside the room and more.
"You have so many things you’re thinking about the timing, is he gasping or not gasping, we have to be careful on what words we’re going to use, it could be twisted or misconstrued, so it’s very difficult to even … it didn’t hit me what I had witnessed until I think was about 2:30-3 that morning I got to a friend’s house and it finally hit me," she said. "But, up until then, you’re a journalist, you’re just writing everything down."
Turnure, who witnessed Marcel William’s execution, said it was a strange feeling leading up to everything but once it started, she felt like a medical student watching a person before a procedure.
Being there as an official witness and a journalist, she said, is important because they’re able to keep a record of what happened and what didn’t and if they’re in there they are able to provide an account.
"I think it’s really important for the media to be there so we’re not just regurgitating information that we’ve been getting from people on the inside," Turnure said.
Lippman said he feels they were chosen for the task because of their experiences … they have all covered shootings, disasters, fires and more.
"The day to day job teaches you how to prepare for something like this so you can go in and [strictly] observe and report and repeat," he said.