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Empty Seats to an Execution | Florence Snyder

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Empty Seats to an Execution | Florence Snyder

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Empty Seats to an Execution
Wednesday, February 15, 2012 — Florence Snyder

STARKE -- In 1979, Florida’s best reporters jockeyed for seats in the witness room here when John Spenkelink became the first Florida convict executed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to “re-legalize” the death penalty.

Story lengths and expense accounts were virtually unlimited for writers whose job it was to witness the execution and convey the profound moral implications, as well as the enormous fiscal impacts of the death penalty.

Today, as the hour of Robert Waterhouse’s execution approaches, there are press passes not spoken for at Florida State Prison. “This isn’t close to the first time it’s not sold out,” quipped a corrections official who can track the dismemberment of Florida journalism by the decline in the coverage of capital punishment.

If the death penalty is about “closure,” as supporters say, somebody needs to supply institutional memory for a state busy with other things since Gov. Bob Graham first signed Waterhouse’s death warrant in 1985. 

Five years earlier, Waterhouse raped and bludgeoned Deborah Kammerer, a 29-year-old mother of two little girls, and dumped her naked body into a Tampa Bay mud flat, where she drowned.  At the time, Waterhouse was on parole, having served eight years of a “life sentence” for killing a 77-year-old Long Island woman during a 1966 burglary. 

Institutional memory used to be supplied by guys like Ron Word of the Associated Press and Phil Long of the Miami Herald, who spent decades covering capital punishment before being pushed into premature retirement in the endless rounds of industry-wide cost-cutting measures.

The Herald, through its “content partner” the Tampa Bay Times, and the AP will be represented at Waterhouse’s execution by exceptional, if younger, reporters. They and other highly capable members of what’s left of the press will cram compelling stories into limited space. 

But don’t look for any groundbreaking, game-changing, budget-busting reporting like the “Old Sparky” episode of a 12-part series produced for the BBC during the Florida Supreme Court’s pilot year with cameras in the courtroom. In one memorable moment outside the prison on execution day, the camera focused on a car radio as a Jacksonville disc jockey clamored for Spenkelink to “fry" -- against an audio track of eggs frying. 

The series aired in Britain as efforts gathered steam to restore the death penalty there, recalled Florida State University President-emeritus Sandy D’Alemberte.  Public support collapsed in no small measure due to the BBC’s reporting.

It is journalism’s job to pay attention to big-ticket stories with profound societal consequences.  Whatever one thinks about capital punishment, the empty seats on the press bus here should worry us all.

Florence Snyder is a Tallahassee-based corporate lawyer who has spent most of her career in and around newspapers. She can be reached at fsnyder@floridavoices.com

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Greg Melikov's picture

I'm more concerned about the lack of speedy justice involving this and many other crimes. I'm more concerned about empty seats in schools. I'm more concerned about the low percentage of Americans voting. I'm more concerned about the slow creation of new jobs. I'm more concerned about rising gas prices when we're consuming less fuel.

Great info by Florence Snyder. Now also imagine what if someone on death row who is executed is totally innocent wrongfully convicted?? There is one man there who i know for sure is 10000% innocent. We now know who did it and it is NOT him? What if he has been siting there on death row for 36 years now and last year we found out the truth and solved the crime and found the real perps? What if there is new exculpatory evidence about intentional misdeeds by the Orange County prosecutors office that has come to light but that office will not have the decency to even meet with investigators to LOOK at the truth because their careers were made on the lies. Now the lies are uncovered but the wheels of the court system spin in such slow motion that even with the truth uncovered the innocent man still sits on death row right this minute he is in a cage as large as a horses stall and has been for 36 years. He and his family were all shot and left for dead on Christmas Eve 1976 in Winter Garden Florida. He passed out, woke up called for help then got framed for the murders. What if brand newly discovered evidence PROVES a felon/witness/real perp was hidden from the world and called a mere typo by the lead detective for Orange county AFTER they called that man a star witness in the newspapers for 3 weeks? What if the chief of police who came to the man's " rescue" and helped put him ON death row...went on with his own life and was arrested and thrown in prison himself for conspiracy to murder the ambassador of Costa Rica and to earn the 1 million dollar bounty for killing the ambassador. That " lawman" was police chief Robert Joe Thompson of Oakland, Fl. William Thomas Zeigler aka " Tommy IS the most wrongfully convicted innocent victim in the USA. We have the proof and can prove it to anyone off the street with no prior knowledge of the crime. If you ever wanted to check into a situation and right a wrong, don't just sit there. Stand up and DO SOMETHING. www.tommyzeiglerisinnocent.com It is TRUE Tommy Zeigler IS innocent and we KNOW who did it and can prove it to ANYONE WHO CARES...WE HAVE BEGGED THE ORANGE COUNTY PROSECUTORS OFFICE TO MEET WITH US BUT HEY IT'S AN ELECTION YEAR AND THEY ARE VERY BUSY WITH OTHER MATTERS. NO TIME TO TAKE ONE HOUR TO MEET WITH THE MAN'S INVESTIGATOR TO SEE WHAT ALL THE CONCERN IS ABOUT. TOO BUSY TO WORRY ABOUT IF THEY HAVE WRONGFULLY CONVICTED A MAN WHO HAS BEEN SITTING ON DEATH ROW FOR 36 YEARS.....IT IS JUST SICKENING AND THEY ARE SHAMEFUL FOR NOT EVEN GIVING ONE HOUR TO TAKE A LOOK TO SEE THAT THEY WERE WRONG WHEN THEY CONVICTED THEIR FELLOW MAN 36 YEARS AGO. THEY AVOID THE EMBARRASSMENT OR HAVING TO MAKE RIGHT A HORRIBLE WRONG BY IGNORING PHONE CALLS OF THE INVESTIGATORS BEGGING TO MEET WITH THEM TO SHOW THEM TRUTH..