News media witnesses: A longstanding tradition at Idaho executions

By Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE – As Idaho’s news media sparred with the state in federal court this spring over limits on access to executions, the case turned a spotlight on Idaho’s long and consistent history of media witnesses attending its state executions to serve as the eyes and ears of the public.

Media witnesses have been present for all but one Idaho execution since 1901 and published detailed accounts of them. That’s what history shows, and it counters arguments the state presented in federal court, claiming Idaho law suggests no history of media access.

“The body swung not to the right and left, the rope made not a single twist, but facing the sun in the eastern sky, like one standing erect, all that was mortal of Ed Rice was there before his fellows, while the tide of life fast ebbed away,” the Idaho Daily Statesman reported in 1901, recounting the first state execution held at Idaho’s state prison.

Prior to 1901, executions were conducted at the county level in Idaho, and most were public, with hundreds attending.

Idaho’s news media, including the Associated Press, the Idaho Press Club and more than a dozen other news outlets and organizations, sued in federal court over Idaho’s execution access rules, which barred witnesses from the first portion of the lethal injection procedure, when the condemned prisoner is strapped down to a gurney and IVs are inserted; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the media, ordering the executions opened up.

The media had been in discussions with the state over the issue since before Paul Ezra Rhoades was executed in November, but the state had refused to change its procedure. Now, another Idaho execution was scheduled: Richard Leavitt was scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 12.

The lawsuit cited a 2002 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision that held it was a violation of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to exclude media witnesses, and by extension the public, from the full procedure, from the moment the condemned person enters the execution chamber to the time of death. That case was brought by the news media in California. However, only two states in the 9th Circuit – California and Nevada – had been complying with the 2002 decision.

Now, Idaho is complying and so is Arizona – leaving just Washington and Montana out of compliance.

When the news media sued, Idaho defended its procedures. The state argued that allowing witnesses to view the first portion of the procedure would violate the condemned prisoner’s privacy, could impact other Death Row inmates, would cause suffering for the prisoner’s family and friends, and could identify members of the execution team. However, the team is masked and wears surgical garb.

“Few of us know with any certainty when or how we will die,” the state’s attorneys wrote in legal filings. “If we did, would we want our full gamut of emotion, or our contemplation of eternity or cessation of existence, or our regret or defiance, on display? Or would we prefer some final, private moments during the arrangements for the execution before the curtain is opened?”

The media, in legal papers filed in court, argued that 1st Amendment concerns outweigh those issues, and that inmates’ privacy rights are limited.

“Witness attendance at an execution assures public involvement in the process, and transparency fuels informed public debate, which is the main purpose behind granting a right of access to governmental proceedings,” wrote the news media’s attorney, Charles Brown of Lewiston.

No such questions were raised in the early days of Idaho executions, when news reporters had full access to the entire execution process.

In 1901, the Idaho Daily Statesman reporter, Fred Flood, wrote that he and other newsmen were ushered into Rice’s cell, to hear the death warrant read to the condemned man, after the warden “stated that only those present in a religious, official or reportical capacity could enter the cell, on account of its size.”

They then followed the prisoner to the gallows where he would be hanged, and reported in detail on the entire procedure, up to when guards placed the body in a coffin and “carried it to one of the small houses on the (prison) grounds.”

Similar detailed, first-hand accounts were published in the newspapers of the day of executions carried out at the Idaho State Penitentiary in 1904, 1906, 1909, 1924 and 1926.

In 1909, the Idaho Daily Statesman published a photograph of a hand-written, elaborately lettered invitation/ticket the newspaper had received the day before from Warden John W. Snook, stating, “Admit Reporter Boise Statesman, To the execution of Fred Seward, May 7th, at 8 o’clock a.m.” The warden signed his name at the bottom with a flourish.

The only state execution at which members of the Idaho news media weren’t present was a hurry-up double hanging in the middle of the night in 1951, when a frightened prison warden who feared inmate riots refused all requests from outside witnesses, had the gallows erected starting at 5 p.m. for the midnight execution, and had all traces of them removed by morning. The hanging of the two men, ages 20 and 21, was highly controversial due to their age; they had murdered a local grocer.

At Idaho’s last hanging in 1957, several newspaper reporters were present but declined, at the final moment, to enter the observation room at the new indoor gallows. There, a dozen witnesses saw the condemned man, Raymond Allen Snowden, strapped to a full-length backboard, fall awkwardly through the trap door and take 15 minutes to die.

Prison guard Mark Maxwell, who attended the execution, told an Idaho Oral History Center interviewer in 1981, “There was two or three newspaper guys here. … They didn’t want in – they all waited out here.”

Idaho has conducted two executions since 1957, both by lethal injection. At each of those, media witnesses were admitted to the execution chamber and documented what they saw.

Associated Press reporter Bob Fick was among the witnesses at the execution of Keith Eugene Wells in 1994. In a 2011 National Public Radio interview, he remembered the lethal injection procedure as “sterile and antiseptic,” in contrast to Wells’ crime, in which Wells beat his two victims to death with a baseball bat at a Boise bar.

In November of 2011, Idaho executed triple murderer Paul Ezra Rhoades. Four media witnesses attended and shared their observations with other reporters and the public in a pooled arrangement. Idaho Press-Tribune reporter Nate Green said the procedure was “very quiet and somber.” He also reported that once Rhoades was dead, a friend of one of Rhoades’ victims muttered, “The devil has gone home.”

Reporter Betsy Z. Russell, who is president of the Idaho Press Club, researched the history of media witnesses to Idaho executions both for this article and for the news media’s court challenge; a version of this article first appeared in The Spokesman-Review on June 5.