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Wednesday, Jul 23 1997
A Peep Behind the Executioner's Shroud
Convicted murderer Thomas Thompson's appeals for a stay of his Aug. 5 execution made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle last week. The prominent play he received makes Thompson an anomaly among death row inmates.

But Thompson was lucky enough, if lucky is the word, to have had seemingly compelling questions raised about his guilt -- questions that made a good story. (Defense lawyers argue that they have found new evidence suggesting Thompson did not rape the woman he was convicted of murdering, and thus was not a candidate for a capital prosecution; to date, his appeals have been denied.)

Like "Freeway Killer" William George Bonin, whom Gov. Pete Wilson termed a poster child for the death penalty when he was put to death last year, Thompson is a symbol -- but for the other, anti-execution side of the argument.

That executions need poster children to be considered newsworthy is not a situation that came about by accident. And the minimization of news coverage of executions can't be blamed solely on media laziness.

As executions happen more and more frequently, sheer numbness contributes to the back-paging of death row news reports. Two men were put to death in California last year, after one each in 1992 and 1993 -- and none at all from 1977 until 1992. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, each additional execution becomes less and less a "first" -- and, therefore, less and less newsworthy in the eyes of much of the daily press.

But the media's downplaying of California executions is partly the result of a state policy that keeps as great a distance as possible between the press and the execution itself.

In February a U.S. District Court judge ordered a slight relaxation of state rules on the witnessing of executions.

But as Thompson's execution date nears, the California Attorney General's Office is seeking to have his order overturned. And even under the new, looser interpretation of the witnessing guidelines, the condemned is put to death behind a thick glass window, out of the hearing of all outside witnesses. And all those witnesses actually see is a person, already lying on a gurney, then strapped down and fitted with intravenous tubing, go from living immobility to dead immobility. Unless there are other compelling aspects to his story, he's likely to die barely noticed.

Keith Daniel Williams was the second man executed last year; he was killed a few months after Bonin. Williams' crime wasn't sensational: He murdered two near-strangers over a used car in 1978. There were no firsts, worsts, or other superlatives to distinguish his deed or his punishment. In short, he resembled most inmates on death row.

Williams' execution got a small fraction of the coverage that Bonin's received. And much of that coverage concerned itself with the media's indifference to Williams' being put to death and predicted that future executions would receive similar low-key treatment. The Chronicle went so far as to run a story quoting a top Chron editor and other media executives to the effect that they, like their audience, now found executions boring.

That boring quality was created, in part, by strict guidelines on just what portions of an execution press witnesses would actually see.

In Bonin's case, a curtain shrouded the convict until after the IV lines that deliver lethal chemicals had been inserted into his arm. When the curtain lifted, and as the execution proceeded, witnesses said they could scarcely tell when and even if Bonin was dead. Later, prison officials admitted that, while Bonin was hidden from view, technicians failed to properly insert the IV lines on the first try.

Williams' execution was so carefully stage-managed that one media witness likened the San Quentin death chamber to an Andrew Lloyd Webber stage set.

Such blanding-down of executions, death penalty opponents argue, is a large reason why they have such difficulty making a case to the public that the death penalty is unconscionably barbaric.

Thompson's execution does represent a first of sorts. If he is the next prisoner to be executed in California, he will be the first to benefit from the state's new, slightly less restrictive policy on the witnessing of the carrying out of the death penalty.

Court-ordered changes in that policy create a minor wedge holding the death chamber door open. But the opening is so minor as to have little effect on what reporters actually see. It is, therefore, unlikely to lead to any firsthand death chamber revelations substantially different from recent reports of California executions.

A recent federal court order requires that the prisoner be visible as he is strapped to the execution gurney, according to Alan Schlosser, managing attorney at the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is a party to a District Court case challenging the state's restrictions on death penalty witnesses. The prisoner, however, is still confined behind a thick wall of soundproof glass.

And the court did not grant the press any right to view the condemned's "parade" -- that is, the march from his cell into the death chamber. The parade can let witnesses see the prisoner's demeanor, says Bill Turner, a San Francisco lawyer with Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell & Quinn, who has argued numerous death penalty and First Amendment cases.

"Is he being dragged in kicking and screaming? Is he shouting that he's Jesus Christ?" Turner asks, referring to one prisoner's reactions before he was gassed in the '60s.

Even last words spoken by temperate prisoners are off-limits to outsiders. Any comments made are heard only by the warden, who delivers them to reporters after the fact.

Oddly, given its tendency to treat executions so secretively, California's death chamber at San Quentin can accommodate one of the country's largest execution audiences. That chamber has room for upward of 100 observers, Turner notes, and they can sit on risers built when the gas chamber was constructed in 1937.

Because Thompson makes a good poster child for the anti-death penalty forces, his execution, if it occurs, will receive some significant news play. But, Turner says, "the next one won't."

Nor, very likely, will the executions of most of the remaining 450 or so people on California's death rows.

Which is just how the state wants it.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick


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