What I saw at the execution.

We start our video features today with one from the vaults. It takes a great deal of courage stupidity to put this video up today, and I do so with a long list of apologies up front: There are some bobbles in the playback that seem to be an importing/encoding problem, but that’s the least of it. The camera work is atrocious, the sound is bad, the music is laughable, and if I stabbed myself in the leg every time I see footage of someone’s back when I should be seeing their front, I’d have the limb amputated in six minutes. I’m sorry for all that. My only excuse is, I was just fooling around, and the resulting video was never meant to be seen by anyone but a few friends.

“What I Saw at the Execution” is a video notebook I shot when Ron French, my former Fort Wayne colleague now working for the Detroit News, suggested I come along to the lethal injection of Tim McVeigh in Terre Haute, Ind., in June 2001. I was credentialed, and I was there with an assignment from my own employer in Fort Wayne, but it was Ron’s idea; he was going, and he thought it would be fun to have someone he knew there, so what the hell, it was national news and it was happening in Indiana. I asked my editor and she said yes, with the usual instruction: Spend as little money as possible.

That was Ron’s mission, too. The Detroit connection to the Oklahoma City bombing was a bit distant, but solid: Terry Nichols had lived in the Thumb, had kin there, and McVeigh had spent time at his old Army buddy’s Michigan spread. So off we both went to Terre Haute. The federal penitentiary was in the middle of nowhere, with a vast field of many acres alongside. That’s where the media village was.

I spent my newspaper career in places where big national news rarely happens. I’ve never covered a national political convention. Never done a big natural disaster, or a huge celebrity show trial. But presidents travel and campaign, and occasionally even a backwater like northeast Indiana would be struck a glancing blow by the spotlight — August 19, 1988 comes to mind — and I thought I knew what a media clusterfuck looked like. I didn’t.

It’s sometimes hard to remember, today, what the first eight months and 10 days of 2001 were like, and when I look at this video, a little comes back. This execution, an event that only a tiny handful could witness, scripted down to its last nanosecond, required the attendance of all the national networks, broadcast and cable news, teams from most nearby cities, the national newspapers, the ones that aspired to be, and oddballs like me. There were something like 1,600 credential holders. The media village sprang up seemingly overnight, a Brigadoon of yuppie type As, with its own roads, power supply, restaurants, transportation and, of course, class system. Fox had a huge presence. CNN had a private bus running continually between the hotels and the prison. And the print media had Tent A. Or Tent B.

Even with lithium-ion batteries and cellular modems, most people needed a better place to work on-site than their cars. So the Bureau of Prisons set up Tent A, with electricity, lighting, phone lines, tables, bottled water, snacks, assistants, security and other amenities. It was white, like the tents where wedding receptions are held, with walls and isinglass curtains you could roll right down, in case there’s a change in the weather. A space in Tent A cost $1,200.

Tent B was army-green, had no walls, no tables and no electricity. But it was free. Ron consulted with his editors and decided Tent B would do, as long as he could get a table. He rented one with two chairs for less than $10. It was waiting for us when we arrived, a raw wooden-topped table with a sign on it reading DETROIT NEWS. It was the only table; we were the only people in Tent B. We laughed about this until we peed our pants, then went over to Tent A, where each table had a clean white cover, and a flower arrangement. I got but one fleeting shot before a security guard kicked us out.

Anyway, the weekend went on. More people arrived hourly. The news from the prison consisted of occasional briefings saying, “Mr. McVeigh is resting comfortably. That is all.” It was generally agreed that the big news would be the huge demonstrations that would occur. So we went looking for the throngs. An anti-death penalty demonstration had about 40 marchers and giant puppets, which meant they were outnumbered by journalists approximately three-to-one. The pro-death penalty folks were even fewer, and more than once I witnessed reporters standing politely in lines, waiting to interview the talkative ones. Basically, if you showed up with a sign and could give a decent quote or two, you could get on TV. Ron went off to do some interviews and I rambled through town, navigating by the satellite antennas raised on the dozens of trucks on the street — if you saw two or more in one place, there you would find “news.” (Sort of like the traffic jams at Yellowstone, which is how you find animal photo ops.) It’s how I found the Catholic church glimpsed briefly in the video.

On Sunday, a meeting was called in a hotel parking lot to decide who was going to get the scarce witness seats in the death chamber. The Bureau of Prisons had already divvied it up into categories — Terre Haute media, Oklahoma City media, wire service, broadcast, etc., with all the remaining newspaper people competing for two seats, which were up to us to assign. We met to discuss how we might do this, and the first suggestion was the most obvious and fair — throw business cards into a hat and choose two. Most people nodded and said, yeah, that was probably the way to go. And then it started: Wahllll, an Alabama drawl rose over the other voices. We might want to think about this a little.

It was Rick Bragg, a New York Times bigfoot, who wasn’t about to give up without a fight. He gave a little speech about how much respect he had for all of us, y’all wouldn’t be here if your editors didn’t think you could handle it. But. Being the pool reporter for the whole print-media section of the village would be a big job. One would have to have superior observational skills. One would have to be able to see the ah-rony. Needless to say, Bragg, with his Pulitzer Prize and best-seller, was up to the task. I’m standing behind him thinking, hey, I know ah-rony when I see it too, Mr. Pulitzer-pants. Then I said so, in somewhat more polite language.

Fortunately, a lot of people were thinking the same thing. Special irony-detection skills were deemed unnecessary. As it turned out, the lucky business cards belonged to a guy from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and (I think) USA Today.

So anyway, Tim got his hot shot. His final statement was the text of “Invictus.” The hearse carried him away. And Brigadoon started to disassemble itself. I filed my story, set out for home and stopped for pancakes in Anderson. While I mainlined coffee, I reflected on how much money had been spent (but not by me! Or Ron!) covering this event, which could have been capably handled by a trio of old wire-service hands and one photographer. And, in a few more months, we’d learn another lesson about terrorism, and McVeigh would be all but forgotten.

Well, that’s all you need to know. Enjoy, or don’t:

One last note: Anything new I post won’t have the 21st Century Nance open; it’s too long for web video, and is, ultimately, an inside joke that should stay inside. But it was already on the completed project, and so it goes.

Posted at 7:56 am in Media, Video |

28 responses to “What I saw at the execution.”

  1. Mindy said on December 10, 2007 at 8:43 am

    Awesome. Thanks for posting.

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  2. 4dbirds said on December 10, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Tim McVeigh was executed on June 11, my father’s birthday. For that reason, I always think of Tim McVeigh on that day and it rankles me to no end.

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  3. brian stouder said on December 10, 2007 at 11:33 am

    I’ll have to watch the video later – but that Invictus is just tripe

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,

    I am the master of my fate;
    I am the captain of my soul.

    considering that the lunatic PS his murderous act essentially added was –

    Too bad for all the souls with business to transact,
    or who had work-a-day jobs to do,

    in the lively building I attacked
    since my soul is missing a screw

    I don’t think they should allow such people to even make “last staements”. He certainly didn’t give any of his victims the opportunity to find something pithy to say, before The Captain of His Soul parked his rental truck and then scurried away

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  4. alex said on December 10, 2007 at 11:47 am

    9/11 is both my parents’ wedding anniversary and my stepson’s birthday. But I don’t blame Islamofascism for destroying our enjoyment of this date; rather I blame the American media for their tiresome annual extravaganzas of cheap sentimentality. Even if the date held no significance I would find this shit irritating.

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  5. MichaelG said on December 10, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Great little flick. Thanks. I remember your relating Mr. Bragg’s seat campaign. I also recall your deep respect and admiration for Mr. Bragg.

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  6. John C said on December 10, 2007 at 11:55 am

    I’ve covered a handful of executions, including John Wayne Gacy’s. As you might imagine, that one was a circus. The strange thing was that we were camped outside the high walls of Joliet, about a half mile from the road, which was where the protesters and partiers were allowed to assemble. A prison shuttlebus took us back and forth between the protest and our encampment. But what I remember is the dueling noises. Prisoners, I was told, go a little crazy on the night of an execution – screaming and shouting from their cells (the place was on lockdown.) So we had that eerie sound wafting over the walls. And then we had the shouts of “Burn Baby Burn!” Wafting across the prison lawn in the darkness.
    As for Mr. Bragg’s assertion that he was perhaps more qualified to watch, I’ll refrain from expressing surprise that he and not a stringer was actually standing there, and I will offer this observation from the Gacy offing. One of the media types allowed to watch was Walter Jacobson, a legendary flake of a Chicago TV newsman (former co-anchor with American Justice master and Anchorman voice-over Bill Kurtis). In the crazyness after the execution, when all of us were under frantic deadline pressure, Jacobson came out and gave a succint, detailed description of what he had seen. My experience is that most execution observers tended to add a layer of interpretation, saying things like “he was quiet and seemed peaceful” or “he seemed agitated.” I can’t remember exactly what Walter said, but it was along the lines of “his head kept moving from side to side” and “he was wearing a blue shirt that was tucked in.” In other words, he did his job as a pool reporter. He told us what he saw and heard.

    So, Mr. Bragg, you never know who can handle it and who can’t.

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  7. nancy said on December 10, 2007 at 11:55 am

    One of the Lessons of McVeigh is: Time erases all. Tim thought bombing the OKC federal building would start a revolution, an uprising against the oppressive U.S. government. In another few years he’ll be a trivia question. December 7. 1941 is someone’s birthday, anniversary or other significant date. I’m sure it was hard to celebrate on the Day that Will Live in Infamy for a few years, but the sting goes away.

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  8. nancy said on December 10, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    My experience is that most execution observers tended to add a layer of interpretation, saying things like “he was quiet and seemed peaceful” or “he seemed agitated.”

    That’s exactly true! After Tim’s witnesses came out, they all mentioned that when the curtains opened, he craned his head up to the best of his ability from the gurney where he was strapped, and looked into the witness gallery. So far, so good. But then came the embroidery: “…as though he were taking ownership of the room,” “…as though he wanted to make eye contact with every one of us,” etc.

    Was Walter Jacobson the one who died of AIDS? Or am I thinking of someone else? [Googling…] I am. That was Max Robinson.

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  9. Jason T. said on December 10, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    You’re too hard on yourself, Nance.

    As a reporter from the sticks myself, I would say you nicely captured the atmosphere that unfolds when a major media event breaks, and the reporters are left interviewing the same gas station clerk 24 times. Saturation coverage like this creates the “appearance” of news when there isn’t any actual, per se, “news.”

    But I have an important question: Is that a Dog-N-Suds restaurant in the background of the media scrum at about 9:00?

    Also, Rick Bragg, for all of his prodigious talent, sounds like a self-important drip.

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  10. nancy said on December 10, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Yes, that IS a Dog-N-Suds, Jayson. I never noticed it before.

    That was a strange jingle — all I recall of it is a chorus of young voices shrieking, “Dog ‘n’ suds! Dog ‘n’ suds! Something something something Dog ‘n’ suds!”

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  11. Jeff said on December 10, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Hey, hey — go easy on Skippy. His name is Walter Jacobson, but i will remember him (he’s retired now, i think; don’t get to Chicago much anymore) as the guy who always said, whatever honor he received, that nothing could beat becoming batboy for the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

    He was a real journalist of a TV reporter, but when he went to FLD and they let him do pre-Dennis-Miller-esque rants, he started drinking his own kool-aid (and apparently a bit more than the grape flavor, too). On straight news, he couldn’t be beat, and he shaped much of my thinking about homelessness with pieces he did that didn’t need editorializing — he just went out scruffy clothes and a hidden camera, and showed what happened from the recipient’s point of view, with not a word of opinion. Or maybe just a bitter, ironic line at the end, which is only fair. The reporting didn’t need the spin to bend people’s ears to thinking about justice.

    Thanks for reminding me of him, though; he and Curtis and Johnny Morris were a prominent feature of what made a quiet evening at home for me as a kid. Solid, thoughtful, interesting, and another Walter Payton record announced, followed by Uncle Walter.

    But we had “Frosthop with A&W” instead of “Dog-n-Suds” up in Da Region.

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  12. nancy said on December 10, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    One of my favorite Max Robinson stories came from a long Atlantic story on satellite TV. In the very early years, when the dishes were the size of trampolines and hardly anyone had them, the programming was very loose. Hardly anyone scrambled anything, and if you were clever with a tuner, you could pick up incredible stuff.

    In the ’70s, when ABC was trying the multi-anchors in multi-cities format, and Max Robinson was the Chicago anchor, his actual working desk was the one he broadcast from. Sometimes, to make sure they had a spot on the satellite, the cameras would be kept on, and live, all the time. If you had mad receiver skillz, you could watch this feed. Imagine what the world would see if they could watch you work at your desk all day. Those in the know would make tapes of Max at work, and trade them like collectors: Max Buys Things Over the Phone, Max Yells at His Underlings, Max Sweet-Talks His Girlfriends.

    I suspect many of them were made by master-control guys at ABC affiliates. I wonder if any have shown up on YouTube.

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  13. brian stouder said on December 10, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    I wonder what the statute of limitations is on unauthorized surveillance recordings?… at the least, if such a Youtube video exixts, this has TORT written all over it!

    One imagines that back in the day, no one considered that recordings of a guy’s desk could even be captured, let alone preserved for laugh-value 30 years later!

    Imagine if somewhere there is a vast Googleable internet archive, where electronic archaeologists can someday sift for every keystroke made by the 2007 kid who will be President of the United States in 2048…

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  14. John C said on December 10, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Unfortunately the “Skippy” I got to know was the FLD Skippy, with those wacky rants. I’m told he was better back when you were watching him, but I moved to Chicago in ’87. So I caught him at the later end. Plus, I never bought his homelessness story. To me, part of being homeless is being hopeless, at least I would think so. It was impossible for me to separate his story from the fact that he was a millionaire talking head.

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  15. nancy said on December 10, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Brian, if you’re conducting your life in front of a live camera that you know is sending its signal into deep space, can this really be called unauthorized surveillance? He could have always found a private place to comb his hair.

    Anyway, he’s past caring now. Max Robinson, 1939-1988.

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  16. brian stouder said on December 10, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Say – speaking of being past caring – we rented Waitress this last weekend, and enjoyed it. Wanted to see ‘that movie that has Andy Griffith in it’ – plus how far wrong can you go with Keri Russell? – and then we watched the extra features on the dvd, and THEN we learned that one of the other waitresses in the movie was also the woman who wrote and directed the movie, and that she had died an untimely death and now has a foundation named for her: The Adrienne Shelly Foundation.

    But they didn’t say what took her out (Cancer? Car crash? Mad dogs? Over dose?) So we Googled her, and learned that….she was murdered!

    And then we said – almost in unison – “huh”!

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  17. Laura said on December 10, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Adrienne Shelly’s murderer made it look like a suicide, leaving her friends and family deeply distraught and confused for weeks. She was a happy, successful new mom and a filmmaker who just got her big break–why would she kill herself? The truth gave them some relief, but not much. Heartbreaking stuff.

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  18. MichaelG said on December 10, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    You gotta check out the pole dancers. First read the story in the NY Daily News. Then watch the video. It’s marginally not work safe but certainly not salacious. If you don’t come away with a great big grin, something’s wrong.



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  19. nancy said on December 10, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    I had to watch it between my fingers. I was terrified one was going to pull an Elizabeth Berkeley and lick the pole.

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  20. basset said on December 10, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    that has been awhile, you don’t see CONUS trucks any more.

    “anti-protestors use Fairbank Park”… I grew up in the Terre Haute tv market, remember seeing REO Speedwagon for free in that very park (Fairbanks, actually) & being amazed that beer was three dollars a six-pack.

    then again it was Sunday and we were all about sixteen.

    actually worked in Terre Haute tv for a year, back before WTHI had live trucks and before anyone had satellite trucks which weren’t full-size monster eighteen-wheelers. went fishing one Sunday morning out south of town and came off the creek to find my VW Beetle vandalized, distributor cap and plug wires thrown somewhere… tried to hitch into town and ended up walking the whole eight miles because of the roadside signs which said, essentially, prison nearby, don’t pick anyone up.

    one of those character-shaping experiences, I guess.

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  21. Peter said on December 10, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    Wow, small world, but Walter Jacobsen is definitely looking at the green side of the grass – I said hi to him last week when he was passing through City Hall and I was on my way to a hearing.

    Mike Royko would crap all over Jacobsen from time to time – his basic rant was that when Walter was a batboy the Cubs would throw soiled jocks at him, but now that he’s an anchor they’ve stopped doing that – which is a shame.

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  22. joodyb said on December 10, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    Brian: what lamebrain do you suppose put him up to Invictus? I’ve wrestled with whether he could have come up with it on his own or someone said, read this, this will piss ’em off good. he may as well have recited blue oyster cult.

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  23. michaelj said on December 11, 2007 at 1:16 am

    What in the world made you subject yourself to this? If you’re bound and determined, as they say, to be evil enough to be put away by the state, I suppose you should do it in Utah. Pretty clear these days that lethal injection is cruel and unusual.

    Catholic Church may, or may not, be benighted about abortion. Far as killing grownups for revenge, or politics, pretty clear. The late Pope was a willing shield before Shock and Awe. Didn’t see Jerry Falwell volunteering. Mosaic law. Whose oxen are taking the horns?

    I witnessed somebody being killed by gunshot in Worcester, Mass, I think on Sept. 5, 1969. Not something I’d ever want to see again.

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  24. Pam S. said on December 11, 2007 at 6:54 am

    Why or why do northerners insist on writing Southern dialect in dialect. I’m from Tennessee, and spent 20 years in Arkansas. I know lots of people from Alabama, and even have talked to Mr. Bragg a couple of times. It’s really not that profound. Well, only if your not from around these parts.

    Maybe I’ll start quoting all northerners in dialect. 🙂

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  25. John said on December 11, 2007 at 7:50 am

    Brian, if you want to see “that” movie with Andy Griffith, watch “A Face in the Crowd .”

    Pam, start with the words “mi’en”, “ki’en”, “smi’en.” The northerners around here can’t find the double-t in any word.

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  26. Kim said on December 11, 2007 at 8:14 am

    Oh, wow. Loved the video. It captured perfectly the weirdness of the Gigantic! Media! Event! I loved how you pulled back from the tight shot of the pen to the two director’s chairs on a makeshift set, how the sign said “Demon-Strator,” the floral arrangements for the white tent crowd, Ron’s issue with nighttime bugs to flames. You have a really great eye for these telling details, both in words and pictures. Very cool.

    As for the Bragg episode, similar thing happened to me. And his southern accent gets decidedly more southern — meaning, not to write about it in the drawn-out way it is spoken would be a crime of omission — as he tries to weasel his way into a story/execution room/somebody else’s interview.

    Skippy J. used to be the man in Chicago news. I was bummed when he became a ranting caricature of himself. And Bill Kurtis — he was my first experience with “Star Don’t Play With the Little People.” I was interviewed for the local CBS Sunday evening news program hosted by Bill K. (2 on 2, for all you old-time Chicagoans), with the camera guy following me around, asking questions. When it seemed like there weren’t any more questions I asked when I was gonna meet Mr. Kurtis. The camera guy (now I know he was the producer who did all the work) laughed and said it didn’t work that way. So when the piece came on the air I, a tender teen, was so surprised to hear how Mr. Kurtis narrated it and asked questions, with my remarks edited to fit.

    And so began my career in journalism ….

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  27. michael heaton said on December 11, 2007 at 9:15 am

    great video. it said so much w/o words. except for Bragg’s.
    Is that the perfect name for him or what? Right out of Dickens.

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  28. del said on December 11, 2007 at 9:18 am

    The dialect thing’s a tough one. Sometimes the speaker’s doing it for effect. I saw a Jewish Detroit attorney easily slip into a pronounced New York-Jewish accent when negotiating with a New Yorker. All for effect. Sometimes people exaggerate a southern or western drawl to seem folksy. Ever see W. on TV during his campaign, arms sticking out at a 45 degree angle (like he was getting ready to draw), saying that he wanted to be the president “uh thuu United States uv Uuhmyrrica?” I do. Of course sometimes northerners exaggerate a southern twang in a mocking way; but I would guess that Bragg was playing a part . . .

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