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Friday, August 31, 2007

Ohio's Execution Chamber: Bloggers Should Be Allowed To Witness Death Sentences

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- Ohio has executed 26 men since the death penalty resumed in February 1999. State prison system rules enacted in the 1990s limit coverage from inside the death chamber to members of the mainstream media. Witnesses can be wire service reporters, journalists from newspapers and broadcast outlets in the condemned prisoner's home county, and a Statehouse news reporter from the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association in Columbus.

The press and broadcast representatives automatically have seats. Now it is time to include the bloggers. Their brand of citizen journalism did not exist 15 years ago when the state decided who had the right of access to each execution. At the time, the media representatives were viewed as the only eyes and ears of the public. Executions are not conducted openly on courthouse squares -- they are highly regimented and highly restricted events. The public is totally shut out from the procedure that takes place behind walls at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution.

Adding a blogger to the official list of witnesses should not be a huge deal -- bloggers now cover criminal trials, they are in Iraq, they cover legislative hearings, they cover political campaigns and elections, they cover City Halls and the Statehouse. Politicians and political parties have bloggers on their staffs. There is no good reason to keep a blogger out of the execution chamber as witness to the moment when a life is taken by the state.

It is no secret that MSM reporters and journalists are losing interest in covering executions in Ohio. Last month, Dan Williamson of The Cleveland Free Times explored the topic and interviewed Lee Leonard, who retired after covering state government for the Columbus Dispatch. Leonard told him:

"I would say probably after 10 or 12 [executions] the interest began to wane. Then I think reporters looked around and said, 'Hey, this is not news anymore.'"

But it is news. Important news. And it is far too important to be left to the MSM, which now buries the stories when a prisoner is put to death. Bloggers would not be so blase. Those on the right might see an execution as serving a societal purpose; those on the left might see an execution as serving no societal purpose. Either way, the public won't be shortchanged. But it is being cheated by the existing witness system because the new media is kept away from a major event that is an old media monopoly -- a monopoly over which it has grown jaded.

Just so everyone knows, I have made the trek to the death chamber in Lucasville. I was a witness to the execution of Wilford Berry in February 1999. He was the first person put to death in Ohio since 1963, and I wrote the front page story for The Plain Dealer after watching him die of a lethal injection. Later that night, several Heinekens in the Portsmouth Holiday Inn helped me sleep soundly. I covered other executions at the prison in Scioto County, but did not go back to the death chamber to watch an inmate expire. Once was enough.

Now it is time to scrap the MSM's monopoly on capital punishment coverage. Bloggers could bring a whole new sensitivity and sensibility to the moment. I have written Gov. Ted Strickland suggesting that he open this topic for review: Should traditional journalists and the Statehouse press corps alone have all the seats as witnesses? Or should there be a spot for those whose whose work appears in the blogosphere?

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