Covering Death

By Jon Harris


From left: Sanjay K. Chhablani, Deborah Denno, Mike Graczyk

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Friday afternoon is a time to rejoice and get ready for the weekend. In Newhouse III’s Hergenhan Auditorium, it was a time to talk about death.

Panel 1 of The Carnegie Legal Reporting Program’s Spring Symposium dealt with capital coverage. The panel consisted of three qualified professionals with an expertise in death penalty issues. The reporter on the panel was Mike Graczyk of the Associated Press, who has been a media witness to more than 300 executions, the most among journalists. Deborah Denno, a Fordham law professor and expert on the death penalty, and Sanjay K. Chhablani, Syracuse College of Law professor who worked on death penalty cases, also were on the panel. Stan Linhorst, senior managing editor of The Post-Standard, served as the moderator.

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Nicknamed “the ghoul” by inmates, Graczyk, AP correspondent in Houston, wants people to know that capital punishment is not the only thing he does. He does fun stories like covering a 60-mile stretch of road in Texas used to see how fast your car is. “Nothing I do peaks people’s interest like capital punishment,” Graczyk said.

His current state of Texas is responsible for one-third of the U.S.’s executions, with 450 executions. There are more upcoming, as Graczyk said he has two executions to attend in the next few weeks.

Capital punishment is currently being used in 35 of the 50 states, Denno said. The death penalty system costs these state’s significantly more money than keeping inmates in prison without parole. “The California death penalty system has cost tax payers 114 million dollars,” she said.

The predominate form of execution is by lethal injection, Denno said. A procedure that, in 33 of the 35 states, not practiced in Washington and Ohio, includes a three-drug protocol.

They first give the inmate an anesthetic followed by a paralytic which freezes the muscles to not allow the inmate to move around or struggle. The third step is an injection of a compound similar to road salt, which burns the person internally. It’s like a fire inside the inmate, but they cannot express their true pain because of the paralytic drug administered before the last injection, Chhablani said.

Of the 300-plus executions he’s witnessed, Graczyk still remembers his first. In 1984, he attended his first and it left an impression. “I’d never seen anyone die before,” he said.

Today is different for Graczyk. He said it’s important to keep your emotions in check when witnessing an execution. “You’re there to do a job,” Graczyk said.

Even though it’s his job, he said there is one story he’d like to take back. Graczyk wrote an article on a prison chaplan who put his hand on an inmate’s leg during an execution. The way he wrote it made it seem like the chaplan was trying to hold the man down, when he was actually just offering a sign of comfort. “I was troubled because I cost someone their job,” Graczyk said.

When looking back, he has mixed feelings on the executions he’s covered. Some inmates on death row he talked with said they knew Texas had the death penalty, but they committed the crime anyway, Graczyk said. He also had become good friends and developed relationships with other inmates who were executed. “I don’t get cards from them anymore,” he said. “Because they’re dead.”

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