This week, Arkansas executed its first inmate in 12 years. Weeks of controversy, protest, legal wrangling, and constant last-minute developments culminated Thursday night at 11:56 p.m. with the death of convicted murderer Ledell Lee.
Arkansas gained international attention for its original plan to execute eight death row inmates over a period of 11 days. It would’ve been a record.
Following intervention from the courts, four scheduled executions dwindled down to one: Ledell Lee. With three executions scheduled next week, it’s still possible Arkansas could put four inmates to death over a period of seven days. Only Texas has executed more convicted killers over that many days.
I’ve covered plenty of big stories, but this one was different. Countless hours of coverage featuring legal interpretation, last-minute reprieves, up-to-the-minute changes, and dozens of twists and turns would ultimately lead to our journalists announcing someone’s planned and premeditated death.
Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, the process feels a little strange.
“For me, the thing that made this so much more different than covering a homicide or murder, something we do all the time, is that this was controlled,” said reporter Stephanie Sharp.
She’s right. This was different.
“In an instant, it was over. That’s when it hit me that a life was finished. I didn’t expect to get a lump in my throat, but I did,” recalled Sharp. “Everyone was waiting for death.”
Sharp reported alongside veteran KARK news anchor Bob Clausen on the night Lee was executed. As the clock approached midnight when Lee’s death warrant would expire, Clausen recalls sending a tweet about how quiet things were outside the prison. Minutes later, the wheels were in motion following a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. A man would be put to death just feet away. Clausen called it sobering.
“Ending a person’s life is serious business but is the business of the justice system,” said Clausen. “As a reporter, we can guard ourselves behind facts, names, dates and court rulings etc., but now is the moment a man will die for his crime. Just or not, you face the fact a life will be intentionally and legally ended.”
The emotional toll hit our producers, photographers, anchors, and reporters in different ways. Clausen worked to recall the reason he was there in the first place.
“Someone will suffer a loss. That turns your focus to the loss that caused this: Debra Reese (Lee’s victim),” said Clausen. “It all begins to come full circle. We are not here because a life is about to end but because a life was taken.”
Producer Shealyn Kirkman, who fittingly describes herself as empathetic, says thoughts about the death row inmates and their victims kept moving through her mind. She remembers trying to block out any personal thoughts and keep focused on the job at hand.
“As minutes turned into hours it became clear this was not going to be easy,” said Kirkman on the experience. “My heart was racing and I kept telling myself just to be stay calm and do my job.”
Calm was a focus of anchor Kevin Kelly, who brought viewers live coverage from outside the prison that housed the death chamber on Monday night. A last second-decision from the U.S. Supreme Court spared the life of death row inmate Don Davis. He remembers trying to process and collect his thoughts in the middle of chaos.
“It’s my job to try and calm things down — slow them down — and hopefully present them in a professional and objective manner,” noted Kelly. ” That is a challenge in and of itself, just because of the nature of the story: a person is scheduled to die.”
Challenge. That’s a pretty good word for all of this.
Working in Texas, an execution was just another footnote in a newscast. I remember clicking on Associated Press alerts, seeing that someone was executed, and closing out the screen on my computer without thinking twice.
The situation in Arkansas was nothing like that. Over the last few months, we’ve gotten to know the stories of the victims and the men sentenced to die. You were personally connected. In our business, you can prepare yourself for what might or might not happen. You can’t prepare for the emotion that comes with it.
“It’s an experience I’ll grow from,” noted Sharp. “Not just in my career, but in my life.