In February, Arkansas announced a series of April executions that, if carried out, would make history in the United States: Over an 11-day period, the state would put to death eight inmates – two each on four days. No state had performed so many executions in such a short time since the Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty in 1976.
And Arkansas, which had not carried out an execution since 2005, had a curious justification for the expedited timetable: the supply of one of its three execution drugs was expiring at the end of the month. Officials were not confident they could obtain more.
Weeks before the first planned execution, a team of AP journalists in Arkansas and beyond set out to both chronicle the executions and offer deep and varied enterprise that broke news. Their work earns this week's Best of States award.
The weekend before the first execution date, Little Rock reporter Andrew DeMillo explored how Arkansas' plan was in part a test of the effectiveness of death penalty states’ strategy of thwarting challenges by keeping secret how and where they get their lethal-injection drugs. He followed up the next day with a profile of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a pivotal player in the drama.
As court challenges mounted and derailed at least three – and perhaps more – of the executions, reporters adapted, delivering urgent updates and quick-hit enterprise. Included in the latter was a profile by DeMillo of a judge who ruled against the state’s execution plan (a ruling the AP was first to report on) – and then promptly attended an anti-death penalty rally, where he lay down on a gurney in apparent solidarity with the inmates. Central to the success of that story was a UGC photo obtained by Arkansas News Editor Kelly Kissel. Here, Kissel’s deep connections in the state were key: As it turned out, he sang in a choir for 10 years with the photographer, who provided Kelly with a high-quality image of the judge on the gurney.
Among other highlights leading up to the first execution was an interview conducted by Houston VJ John Mone of Texas colleague Mike Graczyk, who has witnessed hundreds of executions over his career. In standalone video and video shared for social promotion Graczyk also contributed a text piece on the history of multiple executions.
Officials had put difficult obstacles in the way of AP and others. ... Kissel used his connections in state government to negotiate internet access, ensuring fast filing.
Key to the coverage of the executions themselves was planning by Kissel and others in Little Rock. State officials had put difficult obstacles in the way of AP and others. They planned to put reporters in a room without internet access or cellphone reception, and said they would make only two landlines available. Kissel used his connections in state government to negotiate internet access, ensuring fast filing.
Planning also played an important role in staffing. Oklahoma City’s Sean Murphy drove to Arkansas to witness the first execution. He had covered a botched execution involving the controversial lethal-injection drug midazolam, something that positioned him to make any comparisons if complications arose in Arkansas.
Murphy witnessed the execution, with Kissel getting news to the world when first word of the inmate’s death arrived at the media center. Kissel, who provided fresh photos from the prison, and Murphy were aided by colleagues DeMillo and Jill Bleed in Little Rock, who kept up with the complex last-minute legal wrangling and other developments. Washington Supreme Court reporter Mark Sherman’s expertise on deciphering court doings ensured that the AP was fast and accurate when word came from the court. The result was a textured story that put the execution in the context of the country’s complicated history with the death penalty.
The team offered far more. Enterprise included a sharp piece by DeMillo looking at how the Arkansas Supreme Court, angering conservatives, had derailed a number of executions; an "Only on AP" by Dallas’ Claudia Lauer that reported exclusively on how one drugmaker asked Arkansas not to purchase its products for months before the state accepted a “donation” of the drug; a Q&A by Bleed outlining the many legal challenges the state faced, and a story by Sherman exploring new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s role in life-and-death decisions on the cases.
Key to getting readers and viewers to engage with the standout coverage were the many tweets and promotional videos, including selfie video of Murphy describing the first execution.
For the compelling coverage, Kissel, DeMillo, Bleed, Murphy, Sherman, Graczyk, Mone and Lauer share in this week’s $300 Best of the States award.