BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Texas has 115 prisons. Six of them are in Huntsville. The Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville holds Old Sparky, the electric chair built by prisoners, incidentally, that shocked 361 prisoners to death from 1924 to ’64. Now, of course, they die by lethal injection.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Huntsville’s main street is an unimposing place. It’s Texas’s version of quant small town America. Yet, a quarter of this city’s population is made up of convicted criminals.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Huntsville, Texas is a prison town through and through.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, also sometimes known as the Huntsville Unit.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Death Row inmates are brought to this unit where they spend their final hours.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: While the prisoner eats his final meal, the men and women who will witness the execution begin to arrive at the prison.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The role of the witnesses by law is to confirm that an individual was actually executed. People volunteer to do this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One such person is reporter Michael Graczyk. He retired, sort of, from the Associated Press on July 31st, after nearly 46 years in journalism and after more than 400 trips to the Huntsville Unit.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: So you’d climb these steps, go through a series of electronic doors. You’d walk through a small courtyard and you reached the Death Chamber. And you walk into the viewing area, the witness area. It’s a narrow rectangular room. If you stood in the center of it and extended your arms, you could probably touch each wall. And you stand and you look through jail bars that are encased in Plexiglas. There’s a gurney that is bolted to the floor. The warden stands at the inmate’s head. There's a chaplain that stands at the inmate’s feet. You can hear what he or she says and whatever sounds they make as the drugs take effect. When we’re all assembled. a prison official will open a door and, and tell the warden, Warden, you may proceed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there an execution that stuck with you long after the fact?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I remember walking in there and the inmate, Robert Black, said to me, hi Mike, how’re you doing? I didn’t know how to react. I mean, you can’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment, you also have to be aware of your environment. And, let's say, for instance, I'm in there among the witnesses who lost their loved one because of what this inmate did, you don’t want to show any expressions of, gee, I like this person. All these things are going through your mind as someone says, hi Mike, how are you doing?
If I could have a do-over, there was one that I would change. There was an inmate by the name of Raymond Carl Kinnamon. He tried to wriggle out of the restraints and the chaplain usually rests his hand on the inmate’s leg as a form of comfort. And as Kinnamon is struggling to get out of the restraints, I wrote that the chaplain was holding his leg with his hand. So when the story got published and people on Death Row were reading the story, they perceived that as the chaplain assisting in the death of their friend. And the chaplain was threatened and he had to be replaced and moved elsewhere. I cost him his job there. If I’d have said that the chaplain was resting his hand on the inmate’s leg at the time, that would have been certainly better than saying he was holding the inmate’s leg. And if I could change that, I would.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have to mentally prepare yourself differently?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: No, I don’t think so, no special kind of preparation or mindset, at least not for me. As a reporter, you go to a lot of situations where you have no clue what's going to happen and you have to be, you know, aware of what might happen. I’ve done a lot of sports stories where somebody makes a last-second shot or makes a basket or scores a touchdown or something, that's actually good preparation for dealing with news in the real world. And as an AP reporter, you’re just exposed to this all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The possibility of something unanticipated happening has a whole different quality from the sports analogy that you just offered. Have you never found yourself emotionally invested in the process with a given person on Death Row?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: No, I’ve gotten to know a number of these people quite well. You cannot get emotionally invested. You just can't because if you do then you begin losing objectivity. And you also can't forget why they are in the situation they are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If they did it. I mean, there has been so much talk about people on Death Row not belonging there and later exonerated by DNA or eyewitness testimony.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: And I will point that out in stories, if that is necessary, but in Texas it has not determined that an innocent person has been put to death. I feel pretty comfortable saying that, that I have not seen anyone who has been found innocent, after the fact, put to death.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though you're retiring, you're not entirely laying down your pen.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I don't think I just want to totally divorce myself from being a reporter or a writer. I do like what, what I've done. But I will not do the daily kind of grind. That’s part of the reason why you get out of this. But, at the same time, I can go in there and cover that story for that day and then leave and wait for the next one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it simply because they happen rarely enough and you’re so experienced in covering them or are you drawn to them?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I don’t know that I’m drawn to them. It’s something that I’ve grown to do. I’m not some groupie. I don’t walk around with a cloud over my head. I’m not the Grim Reaper. It’s news and I like covering news. I’m not a robot. I do have sensitivities but I leave them at the door when I’m covering a story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has covering it changed the way you think about the death penalty?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I, frankly, don't discuss that. I don't know if I'm for or against it. I don’t know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I mean, I’ve talked to all kinds of people on both sides and it’s a, it’s a conundrum. And for me professionally, it is so much easier to just go right down the center --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: -- and explain the sides and leave it at that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. You know, it doesn't sound like you would approach this any differently from a traffic accident.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: [LAUGHS] It depends on the traffic accident, Brooke. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: These are important stories. I try not to over-dramatize them and if people decide they want a more hyped version of the story, they can look elsewhere and try to find it from there, but --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, and I know that’s what you think that I’m saying but what I’m really saying is that if there isn’t a particular gravity to what’s going on here, why does it need to be covered at all, unless it goes wrong?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: You know, it’s kind of like the Space Shuttle. People just take it for granted, until it blows up. And that’s kind of the premise, I think, of your question that, well, just because the rockets are being launched that we shouldn’t care about that, unless it blows up. A death penalty is very similar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you cover it that way. There are people opposed to the death penalty that say it should be public viewing ‘cause we ought to see what the government is doing in our name.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I’ve had inmates tell me that they ought to do it on a 50-year-line on Sundays. If that’s the way they did it, then we’d be there to cover it, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the impact would be if these were publicly-viewable in real time?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: I think they’d be exploited horribly. But if people are looking for shock value, they’re not gonna get it. The way the drugs work is the inmate may say that he can taste it or that he can smell it or that it’s hot or that it’s cold, and he’ll take a few deep breaths and he’ll gasp a little bit. Then he begins to snore, usually, and then there’s no further movement. And this all takes place within less than a minute and, in some cases, less than 30 seconds. I’ve had other reporters tell me, after seeing it for their first time, that, gee, that was anticlimactic. And it really is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After covering 429 of them, is it boring?
MICHAEL GRACZYK: No, it can’t be boring, the -- no. There’s a certain routine to it and I hesitate calling it “routine” because I don’t think it should be routine when the state takes anyone’s life. So let’s say there's a certain sameness to them but no, it’s not boring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re seeing pretty much the same thing over and over and over again.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MICHAEL GRACZYK: It’s news. It’s what I do, and if I get bored by it then we need to have somebody else go in there and do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL GRACZYK: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Graczyk is a recently-retired AP reporter still on the job.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. We had more help from Asthaa Chaturvedi. And this week, we say goodbye to our wonderful intern Meg Harney whose audio editing ear is exceeded only by her enthusiasm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bye, Meg.
BOB GARFIELD: Bye, Meg. And our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.