Emotional Toll of Execution Coverage

EDITOR’S NOTE: Iowa State alumna Danielle Ferguson, watchdog reporter for Argus Media, explains the after-effects of execution coverage, a topic journalists seldom address. In October 2018, she was one of three reporters to witness the execution of Rodney Berget. The video below includes her perceptions, which she shared shortly afterward with Michael Bugeja’s media ethics classes. This year, she wrote about the Charles Rhines’ execution, which she did not witness but nevertheless experienced. Once again Ferguson agreed to share her personal story with Dr. Bugeja’s students studying “evil and social justice.” Ferguson’s exemplary professionalism is testament to the dedication of journalists reporting in the public’s interest.

By Danielle Ferguson

Last year, I was a media witness to the execution of Rodney Berget. I spent a few weeks mentally preparing myself for watching the state of South Dakota kill someone. I was incredibly nervous, but, surprisingly, didn’t experience many noticeable after-effects. The most notable was that I associated the chair he was strapped into to a dentist’s chair, and went to the dentist a few weeks after the execution and was hesitant to sit down.

This year, I spent about a month previewing Charles’ Rhines execution, reminding the public about the crime for which he was to be put to death. I wasn’t a media witness. South Dakota Dept. of Corrections policy says that a member of the AP and a member of the media from the town in which the crime happened are witnesses. This crime didn’t occur in Sioux Falls.

This year, because I wasn’t a media witness, I felt that I didn’t have to mentally prepare. I thought, “It’s another criminal justice report. Just report what happens.”

I spent weeks reading about every death penalty case to recount the death penalty’s history in our state. I spent days reading court documents about Charles Rhines’ multiple appeals: a claim of jury bias because of anti-gay comments made during his 1993 trial, a desire to choose the drug by which he was to be killed and a claim that he never got a real shot at clemency. I spoke with national experts and local experts. I ended up with about 15 bylines for this execution.

I spent 14 hours at the S.D. State Penitentiary Monday, Nov. 4. Rhines’ had three U.S. Supreme Court appeals (Berget had just one), and the execution originally scheduled for 1:30 p.m. didn’t occur until about 7:30 p.m. (Click here for a synopsis of all three appeals.)

I spent all day constantly refreshing the U.S. Supreme Court page, racing against the other media in the penitentiary room to try and be the first to provide an update. We spoke with protesters. It was a long day.

I broke when I read Rhines’ last meal.

  • Fried chicken
  • Cantaloupe or musk melon
  • Lefse, with butter
  • Yogurt (strawberry and cherry)
  • Black licorice
  • Cookies and cream ice cream
  • Root beer
  • Coffee with cream and sugar

There is something so deeply humanizing about someone’s choice for a last meal. Lefse is a Norwegian staple, basically a potato pancake. It’s something my family makes from scratch every Thanksgiving. I had to briefly leave the room when I saw that list.

After speaking with the family of the victim, 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer, I surprisingly felt better. They had released their anger years ago, and hearing their attitude of gratefulness for the time they got with Donnivan was touching. I spoke with them at length after the execution. They responded to Rhines’ last words:

“Ed and Peggy Schaeffer, I forgive you for your anger and hatred toward me. I pray to God that he forgives you for your anger and hatred toward me.”

Peggy shook her head in disbelief. “He forgives us?” she said. “Isn’t that something.” And then she returned to telling everyone about how amazing her son was.

I had nightmares for about a week after this execution. I had dreams Rhines and other killers I have written about found me in my apartment and killed me the way they killed their victims. In my dreams, Rhines said he killed me because of all the stories I wrote about him (in much more violent terms). I would wake myself up every night because I was screaming.

I was surprised at my reaction. That I could cry at the death of this man, yet at the same time fear him for the crime he committed.

I’ve started seeing a counselor, who has talked with me about moral injury, and the effects I experience constantly looking for, reading about and reporting on that are conflicting to my personal moral standards. I personally am against rape and murder, and the fact I research, write about and speak with survivors on a regular basis does damage to my conscience. It’s been interesting to learn about and consider it when I’m reporting.

This execution impacted me more so than Berget’s. That may be because I have more knowledge of the criminal justice system in general and more experience reporting on the death penalty. It may be because multiple national experts said Rhines’ death was unconstitutional, and they were appalled the state of South Dakota would kill someone with a conviction that included jury comments of anti-gay bias.

In all, I feel this experience has put a greater weight to my job overall. Rhines’ case could be instrumental in future death penalty arguments, and I can only hope we documented this event as accurately and wholly as possible.

AFTERWORD:

From Michael Bugeja’s Lecture on “Evil and Social Justice”:

Reporters who cover executions typically may express a variety of emotions, including crying or becoming violently nauseated. They can suffer short-term psychological trauma. Emotional detachment, preferred by most reporters, may lead to PTSD. Reporters who cover executions should be given down-time, typically a week off, to process what they experienced and should be encouraged to see counseling for any after-effects. Finally, they should take advantage of resources by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

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