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Planning is the key to handling media interest in an execution.

As dawn was breaking the morning of April 22, 1992, more than 100 news reporters at San Quentin State Prison sent word to their editors that Robert Alton Harris had been executed. Within minutes, the historic prison became a giant backdrop for viewers across the country and around the world as television reporters described what they had seen.

The execution was set in motion 14 years earlier when Harris and his brother abducted two teenage boys from a fast food restaurant in San Diego County and shot them to death at a roadside. That the world could watch the news reports live from San Quentin was the product of months of discussion, debate and planning by the California Department of Corrections.

Before the Supreme Court's ban on capital punishment was overturned in 1976, reporters routinely attended executions at San Quentin. Most were newspaper reporters, who telephoned details to waiting copywriters a few miles away in San Francisco. That was before satellite technology made it commonplace for news to be instantly broadcast to TV and radio audiences worldwide.

Access Issues

The question facing the California corrections department in 1992 was not whether to change the policy of allowing reporters to witness executions. Our two biggest issues were deciding which reporters would be allowed to witness the execution and coming up with a way to accommodate the hundreds of other journalists - and their photographers, engineers, producers and heavy equipment - reporting from the prison grounds.

There was no end to opinions. Keep cameras off prison grounds. Allow cameras but no live broadcasts. Provide as much access as possible without affecting security. In the end, we decided the public interest would be served best by the widest news coverage possible.

We set up a media center in a one-story building located just inside San Quentin's East gate that normally is used for staff training.

We received more than 1,000 media requests for access and information in the six weeks leading up to the execution. After evaluating the amount of space available inside the media center, we decided to allow 125 reporters inside. We also allowed about 125 photographers, engineers, producers and videotape editors and 26 large broadcast vans onto an adjacent parking lot.

Many of the reporters had their own private telephone lines installed at the media center. Broadcasters brought their own generators, and everyone shared the cost for a catering van to provide food.

For security reasons, we established a pass system to limit access to the media center and the parking lot. The media respected the system and assigned other staff to cover events outside the prison.

To maximize the number of news organizations represented, we allowed each to assign one reporter to the media center. Video and audio pool feeds reduced the number of technicians needed. Newspaper reporters updated their editors periodically by telephone. TV reporters lined up side by side, with the prison as a backdrop, to send live reports hourly. A couple of radio stations devoted their entire afternoon and evening programs to issues surrounding the scheduled execution.

We knew coming up with a system to select 17 journalists to witness the execution would not be easy. We decided that two should come from national wire services, eight from radio and TV stations and seven from newspapers. One condition we set was that three witnesses - one each from a major newspaper, a news radio station and a TV station - should come from San Diego, where the crime occurred.

We began by allowing the Associated Press and United Press International to send representatives. From there, to avoid any appearance of favoritism, we asked print and broadcast media in California to develop their own processes to fill the remaining 15 slots.

Broadcasters chose their eight witnesses using a random selection process - designed by two professional radio and TV news organizations - that provided equal access for Southern and Northern Cafifornia radio and TV news stations.

A similar attempt by a professional newspaper reporters' organization was doomed by intense pressure from a couple of large newspapers that opposed the random lottery selection process. Not surprisingly, smaller newspapers felt it was unfair to choose on the basis of size.

After months of squabbling, the papers asked the corrections department to make the decision. Each paper provided helpful suggestions - all based, of course, on their being selected. The papers then made demands and threats and cajoled and whined in an attempt to snag one of the coveted positions.

Ultimately, we developed objective and impartial criteria to provide the widest possible coverage. We filled four spots by allowing one reporter from the largest papers (by circulation) in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento. We then selected two more from a random drawing of papers with circulations larger than 1,000. The final position went to a newspaper from the community where the prison is located.

When the selections were finished, we had met our objectives, but not everyone was satisfied. Just hours before the scheduled execution, the publisher of the San Francisco Examiner found a sympathetic judge who ordered the department to allow one of the paper's reporters to join the other 17 media representatives. The publisher had argued it was unfair to exclude his paper since it had had witnesses at every execution before 1976.

The Execution

The day of the execution, we coordinated briefings from prison and local law enforcement officials with afternoon and early evening news deadlines. Topics ranged from the condemned inmate's activities to the pro and anti capital punishment demonstrators who had gathered outside the prison.

Briefings continued through the evening during the flurry of last minute appeals and court-ordered stays of execution, one of which was granted just seconds before the order was to be given to lower the cyanide pellets. The reporters watched as the inmate was removed from the gas chamber and returned to a holding cell. With two postponements, the execution - originally scheduled for just after midnight - did not take place until shortly after 6 a.m.

Minutes later, the witnesses were shuttled from the gas chamber to the media center to tell their waiting colleagues, and the world, what they had seen and what they thought about it all. Now the spotlight was on 18 news reporters - not prison officials - to interpret the execution. No one had to wait for the next newspaper edition. People around the globe, from San Francisco to Miami and from London to Dusseldorf, could listen to the news conference as it was broadcast live from San Quentin State Prison.


As an agency serving the public, the California Department of Corrections believes it is important to try to accommodate media coverage at events with a high degree of public interest. The best way to accomplish this smoothly is to incorporate the media's needs in operational planning.

At San Quentin, media representatives expressed appreciation to us for effectively keeping them informed and for providing them the space they needed to work. The process proved orderly for both the media and the department. Without disrupting prison operations, reporters and photographers were able to cover the event. While we hope that in the future newspapers can develop a better process to select their own witnesses, we plan to make no major operational changes for future executions.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:case study at San Quentin
Author:Kindel, Tipton C.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Enforcing the death penalty with competence, compassion.
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