Cummins Prison Visitation Center Again To Host International Reporters Night

Apr 19, 2017

Al Jazeera English correspondent Shihab Rattansi readies for a live broadcast in the shadow of the Cummins Prison watchtower.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

  

While a small group of local protesters gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock Monday night, a larger group of international journalists convened death penalty coverage from within the visitation center inside the fenced perimeter of Cummins Prison.

In February the state announced it would execute eight death row inmates in pairs between Monday and April 27. Friday, the first, Bruce Ward, was given a temporary reprieve, leaving Don Davis, but on Monday afternoon the state Supreme Court issued a stay pending an independent psychological evaluation. Still, the state went ahead with its plan, had even brought the victim’s family and witnesses to the prison’s execution facility, when at the 11th hour the U.S. Supreme Court denied the state’s appeal. The stay held.

Among the television reporters from around the state and print guys from the Associated Press and the New York Times was the U.S. correspondent from Svenska Dagbladet in Stockholm, documentary teams from the BBC and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, a correspondent from Al Jazeera English and another from the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Likely they'll convene the second night of coverage tomorrow.

Anne Widmann is a Swiss producer with Entermezzo and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

“No one heard about Arkansas in Switzerland but now we hear about Arkansas," said Anne Widmann, a producer with Entermezzo in Geneva. "We have cartoonists making cartoons about it."

Editorial cartoons, she means. One she characterized as “a cynical joke” compares the condemned men to packaged meat and the expiration date of the state’s supply of a lethal injection drug to a sell-by date.

Arkansas’s lethal injection plan calls for a succession of three drugs, and the state’s supply of the first, midazolam (or Versed) expires May 1. That’s the reason the state has given for the glut of executions, eight at first, between Monday and April 27. Now five.

Sandra Johansson is a U.S. correspondent with Svenska Dagbladet in Stockholm.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

At its fullest the cinderblock building contained more than two dozen reporters, fidgeting and fussy for news from outside because cell phones are prohibited.

Inside the vacuum these reporters start digging around for information, but not among the informed (the governor’s spokesman, J.R. Davis, and Solomon Graves for the  Corrections Department had nothing to report nearly the entire night, and worked from somewhere else on campus). They started probing on each other, the way hair is cut and styled inside a beauty school. 

Edward Pilkington of The Guardian said he’s not surprised by the international attention.

“No, not at all, you know, we’re hearing suggestions the governor and others in Arkansas were surprised by the degree of national and international attention on this, which in itself I think is surprising, because you say to the world you’re intending to execute eight prisoners in 11 days, and that in itself is just an astonishing statement. It’s no surprise to me at all that the world sat up and went, ‘Wow.’”

Edward Pilkington of The Guardian
Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

 

Sandra Johansson is a U.S. correspondent with Svenska Dagbladet in Stockholm, and she was surprised.

“I actually am. I actually am. Yeah, there’s a lot of journalists from all over the world. And as I heard one of the TV journalists outside say, that this is a very small city, and it's not a city that usually gets attention from a Swedish journalists or France journalists. So, you can really tell that this execution, it’s something, it’s something special.”

Both Johansson and Pilkington work in the states, though on the East Coast. Sadly for Arkansas Johansson says she’ll parlay her editor’s zeal for execution coverage by digging around on other another matter she believes the state is rich in: hate crimes.

While no European country employs the death penalty, 31 states do and the federal government do. Pilkington and Johansson diverged, too, on their readership’s reception to the coverage.

Governor's spokesman J.R. Davis fields a question from a BBC documentary journalist after announcing just before midnight that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected the state's appeal of the Arkansas Supreme Court's stay of Don Davis's execution.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

Johansson said that, without any familiarity with polls of Swedish opinion, she suspects the death penalty is disliked by more than four out of five Swedes, and this in a country in which no life sentence is given without parole at roughly 20 years.

Pilkington, on the other hand, said the British people are in all likelihood not dissimilar from their most notorious colonial diaspora.

Polling “suggests that more than 50 percent of people in Britain would reinstate the death penalty, were they given the chance. However, the views been taken, and it’s been decided now for decades, at the level of public service, it is considered uncivilized and undignified to have death sentences, and capital punishment was abolished decades ago, and there’s no sign of it coming back in Britain or anywhere else in Europe.”

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.