Posted in Behind the News

Digital storytelling takes readers inside death chamber

, by Lauren Easton

In a memo to staff, Deep South News Editor Jim Van Anglen recounted how a reporter worked with an interactive editor and producer to go beyond traditional coverage of executions in the U.S., taking people inside Georgia’s execution chamber to hear the inmates’ last words:

Atlanta-based reporter Kate Brumback, who witnesses Georgia executions for the AP, strains each time to hear the apologies, thanks or defiance that many condemned inmates offer in their final moments. Georgia makes audio recordings of statements in the execution chamber that are otherwise heard only by the gathered witnesses – a rarity among death penalty states. While those statements are limited to two minutes, inmates also have an opportunity to record a separate statement in a holding cell a couple of hours before the scheduled execution time. Brumback has made a practice of requesting any available recordings, along with other documents, after every execution. However, a discussion with her editors about claims made by one inmate in his holding cell recording gave rise to the idea of doing something broader.
The AP interactive includes Georgia inmates' photos, details about their crimes and audio of their final words. (AP Photo)
Brumback filed an open records request with the Department of Corrections seeking all execution chamber and holding cell recordings back to 1983, when Georgia resumed executions. Within a week, the Department of Corrections provided recordings going back to 2011, and additional batches trickled in over the next month and a half until Brumback had at least one statement from 44 inmates. Some inmates only make a statement in the holding cell or only in the execution chamber, some make both and some don’t say anything at all. Because the audio quality of some early recordings was poor, a decision was made to only go back as far as 1993 for the interactive. The rambling length of some holding cell statements and a desire to capture inmates’ actual last words led to the use of only execution chamber statements. Photo desk manager Aaron Jackson scoured the AP photo archives to find prison mug shots for each of the two dozen inmates that ended up in the interactive. Brumback filed a new open records request to gather any missing photos. She then researched the inmates’ crimes and wrote short blurbs that also include the names of the victims. Interactive Producer Roque Ruiz and Interactive Editor Nathan Griffiths pulled various elements together to create an easy-to-use interactive that allows people to see the inmates’ photos, read about their crimes and click to hear their final words. For their creative storytelling that takes people inside Georgia’s death chamber, Brumback, Griffiths and Ruiz share this week’s Best of the States honors.

The interactive is available here.