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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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