The talking about, and the seeing

DISCLAIMER: This blog is going to be about me. It relates to subjects that undoubtedly impact specific other people in much deeper, more profound and often sadder ways, and I would not suggest that the effects on me are in any way comparable. This is just about my perspective, for anyone who might care to know.

As some readers will already know, my other job has been that of a tour guide at the historic Missouri State Penitentiary. Obviously some things have developed in recent days that impact that job … perhaps more on that in another blog, another time.

One of the stories that I have gained some familiarity with for that job is that of the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping. Sixty years ago that little boy was taken from the Catholic school he attended in Kansas City and was murdered by what some would call two “losers” who, it is argued, never showed remorse for killing him.

I walk guests by the cells his kidnappers and killer sat in on death row. I walk them to the small building in which those lives and 38 others were ended, invite them to sit in the chairs where 40 died, and tell them how the process was carried out.

I confess a certain pride in my work. I enjoy being able to inform and entertain people with the history that I have been told, researched, memorized and learned to relate. I like to think some of my guests are even impressed with my knowledge or my delivery.

I feel other things, too. I am a father. In the case of the Greenlease kidnapping, the story of a 6-year-old boy’s death and the knowledge of how terrifying and friendless his final moments were leaves me sobered, no matter how many times I retell it.

Friendless and terrifying they were. His killer, Carl Austin Hall, tried first to strangle Bobby with a piece of rope that proved too short. When Bobby struggled, he was struck in the face and head several times. Then Hall resorted to a gun and, holding Bobby down in the floorboard of the car, tried to shoot him in the head. A first shot missed and Bobby was paralyzed with fear. That allowed the second shot to hit. Hall later told investigators that he considered killing Bobby nothing more than disposing of evidence that could implicate him.

His accomplice, Bonnie Brown Heady, showed remorse only for the manner in which the pair was caught. She blamed Hall for not being able to lay low and costing them the $600,000 ransom their crime had earned from the Greenlease family to take her to their dream life together as they had planned. While being driven down the gas chamber, Heady told the warden, “At least I put flowers on Bobby’s grave,” a reference to his having been buried in the flower garden of her St. Joseph home.

Point in fact: Carl planted the flowers, not Bonnie.

So when does this blog become about me? Right about now.

You see, for the many things that horrible crime’s anniversary might mean to other people, I find myself thinking about what I see as a bit of a personal paradox.

I spend so much time matter-of-factly walking around a gas chamber, relating stories like that of Heady and Hall, talking about what it was like to die of cyanide gas, what final hours were like, even discussing with people what it might have been like to watch Heady and Hall die.

In less than I month I will be a witness to an execution.

Allen Nicklasson is scheduled to be executed October 23. Nicklasson has been called a “Good Samaritan” killer.

In August 1994, Nicklasson, Dennis Skillicorn and Tim DeGraffenreid were stranded on the side of the road in a stalled car when Richard Drummond, a supervisor from AT&T stopped and offered to let them use his phone. Nicklasson held a .22-caliber pistol to Drummond’s head and ordered him to drive to Lafayette county where he walked Drummond into the woods and killed him. Nicklasson and Skillicorn later got stuck in Arizona in Drummond’s vehicle. Nicklasson killed a man who tried to help dig them out, Joe Babcock, then went to Babcock’s home and killed his wife.

Skillicorn has already been executed for his role in the Drummond murder. DeGraffenreid served time for second degree murder.

So how, then, will I feel watching his execution?

I don’t think I’m the only member of the media who would tell you that we develop something of a sense of detachment. We cover death, brutality, cruelty, tragedy and loss on a regular basis. Often we find ourselves presented with gruesome or somber details that might or might not be “on the record.” We write the story, we move on.

I don’t think I’m revealing any great industry secret that most of us have dark senses of humor. Coping mechanism? Maybe.

None of this means we are immune. My weakness, if nothing else, is when a story involves children. I have had days when I’ve taken an early lunch break just to go home and hug my girls so I can get back to work more easily.

So back to the question. How will I feel seeing a man lying on a table knowing that other people are taking his life? I’ve thought about this many times since taking my job at Missourinet, knowing that I would likely one day be a witness to an execution.

Perhaps the best word to describe the modern execution process is “sanitary.” There is no exposition, no fanfare, nothing that one might call “ceremony.” There is just a carefully written protocol with its timeline and instructions to be carried out. As some who have been or are with the Corrections Department have told me, it is their job to carry out the state’s sentence, nothing more, nothing less. If the offender is cold, he is not denied a blanket out of some sense of being undeserving as a consequence of his crime.

It is exactly what lawmakers in the 1930s hoped for when several efforts were mounted to end the old execution method; hangings conducted in the county in which the crime was committed. Those events were public spectacles in which sometimes thousands of men, women and children … yes, entire families … turned out to watch the event or view the body.

Those lawmakers wanted the process to be more controlled, more contained and more private. A man lying on a gurney in what amounts to a hospital room is a far cry from throngs of spectators, on some occasions shouting and jeering.

What I cannot anticipate is the release of emotion from those tied to the event; the family of the victim, the family of the accused.

For the former, this is a situation that has continued since I had just started to drive. I’ve held three jobs, welcomed five children and gone on paying my bills while they’ve dealt with an investigation, trial, appeals and already one execution.

For the latter, one wonders how long they’ve been dealing with issues related to their loved one and whether there were problems pre-dating the crime for which he has been convicted. There is also the worry that comes with having a loved one locked up in a prison surrounded by people convicted of violent offenses.

I think about all these and other things and in the end, the answer is that I don’t know how I will feel. Will my disconnect as a reporter allow me to remain as stoic as the walls of that execution chamber, only there to do the job to be done while whatever plays out, plays out? Will I find myself moved by the emotions of those I talk to who are emotionally invested? What will the way I handle it tell me about myself as a person?

I wonder how long it will take after the event to know the answers.

The law will be broken

Watch this space next week. You might be able to participate in breaking a law.

The legislature appears likely to pass a law over the Governor’s veto that violates the Free Speech and the Freedom of the Press guarantees of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It’s HB436, the so-called gun bill.

One provision says that any “person or entity” that publishes the “name, address, or other identifying information” of anyone who “owns a firearm” could be jailed for as much as one year.

Overridden bills will become law thirty days afer two-thirds of the members of each legislative chamber vote to override the veto. 

Within minutes of the time the law becomes effective, the Missourinet will publish the names of some gun owners. In fact, we will publish the names of every legislator who votes on this bill. Most of them will be gun-owners. Publication of a public record of the names of gun-owner legislators who vote for or against the override will violate the law. 

We take the First Amendment seriously at the Missourinet. It is the foundation of everything reporters do. The First Amendment is what sets this nation apart from other nations in this world. Freedom of the Press. Freedom of Religion. Freedom of Speech. The right to peacefully assemble. The right to redress grievances against the government.

We suspect we won’t be the only ones whose news organizations are represented at the House and Senate press tables who quickly will violate this law if the legislature enacts it.

Any gun owners or other readers who would like to join us in standing for the freedoms of the First Amendment will be invited to add their names to the list under “comments” to that blog if the legislature overrides the veto and threatens reporters or anybody else with a year in jail for exercising those First Amendment rights.






The sins of the children

The ancient book of Exodus (King James translation) contains a warning from a jealous God to visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” if the fathers are hateful to God.   But what punishment should the parent receive when the sin is that of the children?

That was the focus of a discussion we had in the newsroom several days ago after the child of a prominent elected official was charged with a felony.  Should the child’s well-known parent be identified in our stories?

This is not an infrequent consideration in newsrooms. It is easy to think of the times we have seen or reported on the police chief’s son who steals a car; the mayor’s daughter who is picked up with marijuana in her purse; the coach’s son who is charged with rape; the politician’s daughter caught driving drunk.  You can probably think of others.

The first time this reporter was confronted with this issue, as far as his fading memory can recall, was decades ago when the son of a prominent attorney in the town where he worked thought it would be great fun if he and his buddies went out to an old cemetery and pushed over tombstones, doing thousands of dollars of damage.  Should my story mention that the son of one of the town’s most prominent lawyers had broken the law?

Parents, prominent or not, sometimes have to deal with a child that exercises poor or no judgment and in the process sometimes ask themselves, “How could my kid do this?  He’s (or She’s) been raised in a good home. We’re good parents.  What got into him (or her)?”  The offense usually doesn’t rise to the issue of theft, rape, drugs, and drunken driving.  But the concern coupled with embarrassment is there. 

Reporters are taught to separate themselves from the moment and make news judgments unaffected by emotion, their own or someone else’s.  Or personal friendships. Isn’t parental suffering at the hands of a wayward child enough of a family matter that it is not necessary for a reporter to add to it by indentifying a wrondoer by parental connection?   Does common decency play a role in that discussion?   It’s bad enough that the kid did something bad; do reporters have any duty to say who the parents are?  

The Missourinet generally does not tie the sins of the children to the parents.  Generally.  In fact there are times when we–and other members of the media–mention that someone who has a name similar to a prominent citizens is not related to that citizen.   If the name is similar enough that news consumers could wonder if that is a prominent personage’s relative, we have felt it advisable to answer the question before it is asked.  No, it is not the child of the personage. There’s another question we consider, too. You’ll get to that next. 

Here are some of the things we ask when the child of a leading citizen gets into trouble:

Did the leading citizen have anything to do with the incident? 

Would we mention the name of the parent(s) if this incident was caused by the child of someone who is not in a prominent community position? 

What is added to the story by mentioning the name of the parent(s)?

Does the parent deserve to have the iniquity of the children publicly visited upon him or her?

Does a coach whose child strays into illegal territory deserve to have people say, “How can he coach my child when he can’t even raise his own?”  Does the mayor deserve townsfolks saying, “She can’t even manage her own family; what makes her think she can run the city?” 

Is it fair for a reporter to trigger that kind of gut reaction from the public by identifying a wayward child with the parents’ names? 

The answers are hard to apply universally.  If we don’t identify children-wrongdoers by their parents, should we identify victims of crime, accident, or serious illness by their prominent parental connections?  Do the same questions apply?  

The Missourinet is more likely to report that the child of a high state official has been diagnosed with leukemia than we are to report they have tipped over thousands of dollars worth of tombstones.   We are more likely to report the child of a leading citizen has been critically hurt or killed in a traffic crash  or has become a war casualty. 

What’s the difference?   Aren’t we being contradictory? 

Yes, we are.  And we suspect a lot of other newsrooms are the same way.

The difference in approaches, as we see it, is the difference between sympathy and scorn.  Those touched by tragedy regardless of their prominence deserve sympathy.   Those touched by wrongdoing of a family member usually do not deserve public scorn. 

Determining what is “news” has no formula to fall back on.  We are human beings reporting on the human condition.  We are not Gods, jealous or not.  We do not agree within our profession or within our own newsroom what is the proper answer.  But more times than you might think, we weigh what we should say and consider who might be affected, and what is the fair thing to do. 

All those years ago, I did not use the name of the lawyer whose son tipped over the tombstones. And most recently we did not run a story about a political leader’s son who got himself in enough trouble that he faces prison. 

In both instances and in many in the intervening years this conversation has been played time and again in our mind and in our newsrooms.  Some might criticize these decisions as censorship.  We considered them editorial discretion.  The line between the two is thin, easily crossed and easily blurred, and is often in the eyes of the beholder.  

And that’s a little look at some of the things that happen before you hear or see a newscast or read a story in a newspaper.