Op-Ed: Reporter On Why She Watched Troy Davis Die

Read Rhonda Cook's op-ed, "A Surreal Day Awaiting the Death of Troy Davis."

Atlanta Journal Constitution crime reporter Rhonda Cook watched the Troy Davis execution, just one of dozens she has witnessed. The media are the eyes of the public, she says, and have a responsibility to report it if something goes wrong.

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NEAL CONAN, host: And now, the Opinion Page. Last week, protesters, reporters, and state and county officials all crowded around the state prison in Jackson, Georgia, where Troy Davis awaited his fate. His case, and his execution, made headlines around the world. Among those on hand, longtime crime reporter Rhonda Cook of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In a piece for that newspaper last week, she noted how different this was from the 11 other executions she had witnessed. But of course, she adds, they are all different.

What do you want to know from a witness to the execution? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Rhonda Cook joins us now from her office at the newspaper in Atlanta. Nice to have you with us today.

RHONDA COOK: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And how was the scene there different last week?

COOK: Well, first of all, driving up to the prison, the scene was startling, to say the least. I knew there would be a lot of media there. I knew a lot of protesters would show up. But I didn't expect this many. As I'm sure has happened in other states, recent executions, interest - public notice has dropped off tremendously. And this was like a sea of satellite trucks, media trucks, hundreds of protesters, law-enforcement officers, armed law-enforcement officers. So it was just a shock to see.

CONAN: Normally, there are people conducting a vigil, but a relative handful?

COOK: That's right. There's usually about maybe a dozen that show up for every execution, and they quietly go off to their area that they're assigned to. And they hold hands and sing and pray, and then leave when the execution's over. And you don't see the demonstrators like we saw last week.

CONAN: What about the scene inside the prison?

COOK: Inside the prison, it was a little tighter, a bit different. We had a few more checkpoints to go through. We saw more armed correctional officers. But otherwise, the wait and going into the chamber, it was just this - as the others had been.

CONAN: There was a delay because of a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court. The execution had been scheduled for 7 o'clock, and I guess everybody was on hand at the time. Did anybody explain what was going on?

COOK: Well, when you're in the prison, you're cut off, but that's not unusual. They usually schedule the executions here for 7 p.m., and they don't come off at 7 p.m. because they do a last-minute check. Now, there was no stay issued. It was the state that put everything on hold until they could hear back from the Supreme Court. But no, we were getting no information inside other than the Supreme Court had it.

CONAN: And you'd think it would be getting pretty tense in there.

COOK: With the reporters, do you mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

COOK: It kind - it's a little unseemly because anyone - reporters tend to distance themselves from things, and we were in there talking about anything but the execution, except every once in a while somebody would come to, I wonder what's taking so long? But mostly, they'd talk about everyday things - like Braves baseball or, you know, their spouses. We didn't talk about this, but then three of the five witnesses were veterans at this.

CONAN: Three of the five witnesses for the media, the people who go to all of these things

COOK: Correct.

CONAN: like you. Like you.

COOK: Yes, like me.

CONAN: Other than the media witnesses, who else shows up?

COOK: Well, they have witnesses for the state, as they put it. Two of them were from the family of Officer MacPhail. It was his son, who was also named Mark MacPhail, and his brother, William MacPhail. Then there are usually prosecutors, or the lead detectives, that are there for the state. And then the condemned also has witnesses. In this case, there were three for him. At least two of them were lawyers.

CONAN: Officer MacPhail is the man Troy Davis was convicted of murdering.

COOK: That's correct.

CONAN: And how large is the room? Do they sit? Do they talk to each other? What goes on?

COOK: Oh, no. We don't - no one talks. It's not that big of a room; it may be 12 by 12. And when you walk in, there are three church groups - excuse me, church pews. The front row is reserved for the state's witnesses, the second row is for the defendant's - the condemned's witnesses, and then the media is put on the back row. And then usually, there are prison officials and correctional officers lining the walls. And once you walk in, no one talks, no one speaks. The warden makes a point that no one is to speak. And the thing that I noticed this time in the quiet was, the only sounds were the air-conditioner running, and the pencils that the reporters had to take notes on. They give us pencils and legal pads; we can't bring in our own paper or pen.

CONAN: So this is after - just to clarify - you were in a holding area before, when you were talking about the baseball game. And then somebody says, are you ready? And you move into a different room.

COOK: Well, the different witnesses are kept separate. They are very - kept very separate, and I don't know where they are. Some - there's - usually the state's witnesses are in the warden's office. And we're sitting in there, in the break room for the staff of the prison, when the officer who had been shuttling us around walked in and he just said, y'all ready? And that's when all talk just stopped. Everyone shifts into a different mode. And we get into a van, and then there are two other vans for each of the groups of witnesses. And then we all move around the prison, through checkpoints, to the back, and that's it. I mean, everyone gets quiet, and then we go inside. No one speaks until we get out.

CONAN: At some point, the death chamber itself is curtained off, and then is the curtain drawn?

COOK: The way - no, not anymore. The way it's done now is, one of the media witnesses goes in early, before us. And that person's responsibility is to watch them bring the condemned into the room, to watch them strap him to the gurney and insert the IVs. There have been problems before, especially if the condemned is a drug abuser, with getting a vein. And that person there is solely to make sure - just to watch what goes on. And then as soon as he is ready, that's when the vans move through the final checkpoint, or move past the final checkpoint. And we come up to the death house, and the curtain is already open. The curtain is open when we walk in.

CONAN: Troy Davis made a statement. You were there to hear it.

COOK: Yes. Yes. He was - he talked fast, and he talked a lot, compared to some of the others I've seen. And he started out first addressing the MacPhail family, then he talked to his relatives and his lawyers, and then he spoke about the people who were going to be executing him. But he denied it, right up to the moment he slipped into unconsciousness.

CONAN: And do you see the buttons being pushed?

COOK: No. They're behind a wall. There's a mirror that we can't see through, and you can see the tubing coming through the cinderblock wall. The only thing that you're aware of is that it starts within seconds of the warden leaving the death chamber. There's a nurse in there, and there are two correctional officers that you can't really see very well. And then the warden will come back into the room moments later, after the first drug has been administered, and that's the one that's sedative. And they do what they call a consciousness check. The nurse checks to see that the inmate is unconscious. And if she verifies it, the warden leaves the room and then the final two drugs are administered. But we don't know in which order because it's - there's no noise. There's no noise. And it's just a push of a button behind a wall.

CONAN: And you and the other media witnesses sit there, silent. What is your role here? Why is the media there?

COOK: Well, I have very strong feelings about this. Our job is to be there as unbiased observers. We're there to see that it's carried out according to the law, according to the policies and procedures. We're there to monitor in case something goes wrong. We're there to report what we see without any allegiance to one side or the other.

CONAN: We're talking with Rhonda Cook, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who's covering crime there, 22 years with that newspaper. She was, last week, at the execution of Troy Davis outside of Atlanta. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Jessie(ph), and Jessie is on the line with us from Tucson.

JESSIE: Hi. I just had a quick question - well, maybe not quick. But how has viewing these executions - if it has changed your opinion one way or the other, or maybe strengthened your opinion on capital punishment. Has it, you know, has it strengthened it? What is kind of your person opinion on it, maybe? And then, I guess, the second part is, would you think maybe it would be good for policymakers and things to experience it, or would it be kind of a retroactive-type of thing?

COOK: Well, people sometimes don't believe me, but I don't have an opinion. Maybe it comes from all these years of trying to shut down any leanings one way or the other. But if I had an opinion, I couldn't say because we are not supposed to do that. As for policymakers, that would be legislators - they are the ones that pass the laws, the governor - and some legislators do witness it. In Georgia, I don't think it's going to make any difference.

JESSIE: OK.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jessie.

COOK: OK.

JESSIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Rhonda Cook, you say no opinion. Of course, that's a professional stance, too. There are times in our jobs when we're - duty requires us to look at things that are very unpleasant, including what you do. And do you feel, sometimes, like a ghoul?

COOK: Yeah, I really do, especially when people say, what it's like? The first execution I witnessed was an electrocution. And when you witness those, you do know what's going on, and you do see the person walk into the room. When you watch a lethal injection, you're watching somebody go to sleep. And I always hate it when I say it's easier to watch because it's not easy. You're watching someone die. But you see them go to sleep. And that's, you know - I do feel ghoulish. When friends say, how can you do it? well, I do it because that's what I'm supposed to do, and somebody has to do it.

So - and we'll be sitting in the break room, waiting for the time to go. And it feels so unseemly, the things we talk about, but it's - whenever you cover anything that's a traumatic scene, you have to do this. It's way of distancing yourself from what's going on around you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get John(ph) on the line. John is with us from McFarland in Wisconsin.

JOHN: Good afternoon.

COOK: Good afternoon.

JOHN: I have a question that deals with the witnesses. Maybe, how does - how do they react when they actually have come face to face with this killing?

COOK: You mean the witnesses in the chamber?

JOHN: Right. Either in the chamber or, you know, after - right after they leave, when it hits them that - what they've just seen.

COOK: Well, I don't see them when they leave because they keep us separate. We all get in separate vans. In the chamber, nobody moves, nobody speaks, nobody reacts. And of all that I've covered, I've never seen anybody do anything. Everyone is very stoic.

JOHN: Uh-huh.

COOK: I think there's an effort to show at least some respect for the system. It would be - it wouldn't be good for someone to cheer or carry on, and people are just very quiet. They control themselves very well.

CONAN: John, thank you. Here's an email from Robert in Ann Arbor. Do you really think the family has closure at the killing of an innocent man? Obviously, that's Robert's opinion. Does the family ever get closure, and does this ever really matter?

COOK: I'll answer the question as if he just said, does the family have closure, because the innocent man part is the debate here. But no, I don't think so. I did go back once and talk with the families of a 12-year-old girl who was murdered - a year later. And it's - they still don't have their little girl. The MacPhails still don't have their son, their father, their brother. And whether or not it gives you any kind of relief, I don't know. Anneliese MacPhail, who was the officer's mother, said after the execution had been completed, that she was not happy. She was not celebrating because it wasn't something you celebrated, and that she prayed for the Davis family. And she understood that they are now going through the grief that the MacPhail family had already experienced. So I don't think there's much closure there. I don't think that exists.

CONAN: Do you know how many people there are on death row in Georgia?

COOK: Just shy of a hundred; I think it's something like 94, 96.

CONAN: And do you know when the next execution is scheduled?

COOK: Next week. I think the date is October the 5th.

CONAN: And has there been any protest, any movement, anything like what had occurred around the trial of - the execution, rather, of Troy Davis?

COOK: No. No, there has not. This one is from Albany, which is also in the southern part of the state, like Savannah is. This case involved a man stabbing 41 times a woman he had met in a bar. I have yet to hear anybody claim he was innocent. The appeal - the last-minute appeals process is just beginning. But no. The outpouring that you had for Troy Davis is not here.

CONAN: And you'll be there if it goes off on schedule, which is unlikely.

COOK: No. I asked them - they - right before I took this call, they asked me if I would be one of the media witnesses, and I told them I needed a break.

CONAN: Rhonda Cook, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

COOK: My pleasure.

CONAN: Rhonda Cook, a crime reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Her piece "A Surreal Day Awaiting the Death of Troy Davis" featured last week in the paper. There's a link to that piece on our website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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