Sunday, December 18, 2005
The questions started years before Tuesday morning, when Stanley Tookie
Williams became the sixth prisoner I've witnessed since 1993 being executed in
the San Quentin Prison death chamber:
Why in the world would you want to watch so many executions?
Do you actually want to watch them?
Are you some sort of sick ghoul?
The quick answer to the last query is no. Hell, no.
Answering the other two questions is a bit more involved. But it boils
down to the reasons I do what I do for a living.
I got into journalism to stick my face deep into the front lines of life,
to see and hear everything I could. And I know this sounds Boy Scout-ish, but I
have always bought into the credo that reporters have a solemn duty to be the
public's eyes and ears.
Given those motivations, why in the world would I not want to cover an
Think about it: There are few more powerful issues than putting a person
to death. In one brief event, you have overwhelming tragedy and resolution,
hopelessness and rage, sorrow and compassion, failure and hope -- core
elements of any deep exploration of the human condition. And from a pure
storytelling perspective, the subjects always break themselves into easily
definable, but absolutely compelling, forms.
The victims of the murderer being executed have suffered horribly and are
gone. Their survivors will wrestle eternally with their grief. The murderer has
a history that either explains how he came to his sad end, or raises disturbing
questions about the randomness of horror. Killing the murderer draws out both
sides of the Biblical maxims -- those who cry for forgiveness, and those who
cry for an eye for an eye.
And there are the details, successes and failures of the actual lethal
injection or gassing itself.
Don't you think, with those elements at hand, we all need a trained,
interpretive mirror to reflect their realities as starkly and completely as
If you're a reporter who likes be in on intense, meaningful stories,
executions are actually easy to cover -- all you have to do is start
interviewing, watching and writing. Your opinion about whether capital
punishment is right or wrong doesn't mean a thing. The task is purely to dig
hard and reflect what you find.
That's true whether the execution involves someone like the mostly
anonymous and unmourned Donald Beardlslee, who I watched die last January, or
the celebrated and reviled Tookie Williams. Beardslee's lethal injection didn't
even draw a full complement of media witnesses -- we were four short -- and
I got about a dozen letters from readers afterward. Williams' injection was a
full-on media circus, and I got 500 letters from all over the world in just one
As human events, both were equally important in my mind.
Many people also ask if watching these events is disturbing to me. It is
not. This gets back to the motivation of shoving my face into life -- doing
so inevitably gets messy and gritty, but that just makes it more interesting.
I know I am not alone in this. Why else would reporters want to cover war?
Poverty? Disasters? We want to be on the front lines of life, that's why.
I have watched people burn to death in car wrecks and die in the crushed
Cypress Freeway during the 1989 earthquake. I have boated or stepped through
body chunks at murder scenes and disasters, been shot at and chased. I have
covered more killings, kidnappings and rapes than I can count. I've also gotten
close to homeless people who I know are good souls -- and had to watch while
they jammed dirty heroin needles into themselves and shiver in the street
because they couldn't shake their demons.
Many of these things were more traumatic to me than watching five
murderers sleep their way to eternity while attached to intravenous poison
lines, or seeing quadruple killer David Mason in 1993 become the last prisoner
to be gassed to death at San Quentin.
That's because the act of watching someone die quickly in a very
controlled situation is actually fairly benign. What really troubles witnesses
is what's going on in their heads -- anguished memories of the victims,
frustration if they think putting this man to death is unjust. But a reporter
is not there to feel those things. He or she is there to assess and reflect for
Some readers understand this. Some don't. I got letters this week from
readers as far away as Germany and Australia calling me everything from
"courageous" to " -- wipe." Some praised me for being even-handed, others
blasted me for being an obvious shill for the death penalty, and yet others
blasted me for being an obvious shill against the death penalty.
If you do this job long enough, you have to develop a thick skin.
The important thing is to be honest, unafraid to look, and always willing
to take on a story that matters. No matter what.
And that is why I cover executions.
E-mail Kevin Fagan at email@example.com.