HOUSTON – KPRC 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold has covered multiple executions throughout his career in journalism.
The first execution he saw was Ponchai Wilkerson’s in 2000 while a reporter for KTRH. Since then, he’s seen several executions, spearheading coverage for KPRC 2 for years.
Most recently, he covered the execution of convicted killer Carl Wayne Buntion.
Here are some recollections of his coverage, from the details of the death chamber to the strangest moment he’s ever experienced watching an execution.
How many executions have you seen?
I have covered several.
How do you get yourself in the mindset to cover something like this?
Well the first thing you do is you make sure that you are knowledgeable about the case that led to the execution and what I usually do is I go down to the county archives that’s where they have all the trial exhibits from the trial that led to the death sentence and so you become very involved with the minute details of the case, what led to it, what happened to it. I start going through the federal court records looking at appeals, seeing what appeals were filed, were they granted, not granted -- that type of thing. And so, that’s how I prepare for that and have as good an understanding that I can of what led up to the day of the execution.
The Innocence Project and others protest against the death penalty - does that ever play a part in your mindset on these cases?
No, but not because I’m not callous, but it’s not my place. It’s not my place to decide whether or not someone’s appeals are valid or not, the reasons they’re sentenced to death -- that’s not my job. My job is to simply report on what’s happening, report on the case, report on arguments for both sides of the case, and of course, report on the execution.
As far as emotions go, I mean, I was in New York for 9/11, I watched people get shot on the streets of Mexico at the height of the drug wars and things don’t usually affect me until much, much, much, much later because you’re so consumed with making sure that you do your job properly. Have I gotten all my facts right? Have I spelled everybody’s name properly? What do you mean the computer just crashed again -- I thought it was fixed? I thought it was fine. We have to make deadline. What do you mean the live shot’s not working -- it was fine this time? You know, there are so many of those things that usually it hits me after I get home -- after everything’s finished.
What is it like to be a part of the media during an execution? Can you walk me through the process?
So you go up there the day-of. Occasionally you go up there before if the person on Death Row or the person who is going to be executed wants to talk and do an interview. I view it as our job as journalists to monitor, observe and report on how the state of Texas carries out its harshest penalty, its harshest function as a government.
And so you get there and you go inside -- there’s the Huntsville unit on one side of the street and what’s now the IT building on the other side of the street. Go in there and get your packet and it typically has the last-day log of what the inmate’s been doing. And typically they’re very brief logs, typically with procedure 7 days prior to the execution. They begin what’s called the Execution Watch Log. And so an inmate’s action are recorded every 30 minutes until 36 hours, and then at 36 hours they begin logging those hours every 15 minutes and that will continue until they’re transferred from their unit to the Huntsville unit because Death Row’s Livingston Polunsky unit the execution chamber is at the Huntsville unit. So you go into the IT building, get your packet and it will have a list of everybody’s who’s going to witness -- that includes the inmates list of people witnessing the family member of the victim if there are any, and of course media and occasionally you’ll have lawmakers or like a sheriff in the county where it happened and people of that nature.
Then after that we go through all of that we apprise ourselves of that and see what the last day was like and again we wait for the call to go over to the Huntsville unit. You walk over to the Huntsville unit and we walk over to the warden’s office and we wait there until they are ready and they lead us through kind of the back side of the Huntsville unit to the witness chambers and then they walk us into the witness chambers and once everybody’s in the witness chamber, the door is closed, then the curtain is pulled back on the execution chamber. The person is already strapped down. I’m trying to explain -- it’s not like in the movies. We don’t see them being led in strapped down to the gurney, IVs placed. We don’t see any of that. That’s all done and over by the time we get in so by the time they pull the curtain back, and we’re there, it’s probably less than 30 seconds and the warden will ask if the person has any last words and then the person either has a last statement or doesn’t and the minute that they’re finished with that the warden gives the order to proceed -- the warden or their head of CID -- Criminal Intelligence Division to proceed with the execution. Typically right before they will give one last call to make sure there are no reprieves, no appeals. And they’ll hold it, if there’s any appeal hanging out there. They will hold it. I have had some executions expected to take place -- in Texas it’s at 6 p.m. I’ve been there to 9, 9:30 at night, sometimes 10 at night just to make sure that no appeals are left. You just wait. Typically you just wait on the other side in the IT building. By the time that you’re led to the Huntsville unit, into the witness room, there’s nothing left, there are no -- I’ve never covered an execution when there was something left when we were in the witness room. Usually we hang out there. We just, we wait. And obviously we can’t take anything with us except our pad and our pen. So they give the order, the execution happens and you wait. It depends, but you usually wait a good long while. They make sure the lethal shot of pentobarbital has taken effect and the doctor comes in checks for any kind of pulse and obviously there’s not and they call time of death and that’s it and we’re led back out.
Do they close the curtain?
Honestly I don’t remember. Usually when they call time of death, that door opens pretty quickly and we all just file back out.
What is it like to be in that room?
Being in that witness room after the execution proceeds is probably the quietest place I’ve ever been anywhere in my life because nobody speaks. First of all, it would be highly disrespectful and disruptive so nobody speaks and it can be several minutes. It can be close to 10 minutes that you’re sitting there in complete and total silence and so, yes, I would say if there’s any part that it’s that abject silence in that time from the warden giving the order to proceed to the doctor announcing time of death.
What are some of the most memorable reactions from family members of victims?
I will say as far as a family member goes because we’re not always in the same room as a family member. I’ve had a couple where I was and actually both of them happened to be men who happened to be executed for murdering Houston police officers and I happened to be in with the family on both of those. And we don’t get to choose. It’s the prison that decides which witness rooms we’re in. I will say that for some the relief is palpable. For others you can just feel, I mean, the years of sadness that they’ve endured and this is not -- I’ve never seen anybody who’ve been like grateful, but I have seen relief that, for them, that part, that torment in their life has ended. I really saw that with Carl Wayne Buntion’s execution for the murder of Houston police officer James Irby and I think his widow even said, “I think I took the deepest breath I’ve ever taken in the last 32 years.” I thought that spoke volumes as to her relief.
What are some of the most memorable reactions from the person being executed?
As far as something that was truly memorable. Probably the first one -- Ponchai Wilkerson. He -- the reason I had covered him was -- I was still with KTRH radio at the time, so he had figured out how to pop open his cell door on Death Row and he took a guard hostage. And there was a big standoff and I covered that and everything and he eventually let the corrections officer go unharmed and that was it, and so I went to cover his execution. As I said, we’re led in to the chamber and the warden asked, ‘Do you have any final statement?’ And he didn’t say anything and they said ‘proceed.’ And about five seconds after it proceeds he said, ‘Secret as of Wilkerson’ and he spit a universal handcuff and shackle key out of his mouth. Yeah, clearly that’s startling, especially more to the prison than to us, because, you go through strip searches -- very thorough searches prior to being brought to the execution chamber, so that was that and I remember checking for quite a while after that. I don’t remember if they ever really determined where he got the key. They assumed he probably got it during one of his transfers to Harris County, he picked it up and somehow was able to secret it and avoid all of those searches, but I remember the warden very quickly grabbed a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and grabbed the key and put it back and that was it.
What is it like to report after you’ve seen someone die in front of you?
That moment -- believe it or not -- is frenetic because you’re trying to get out, you’re going to collect your things from building that’s across the street, let the station know that the execution has been carried out, then get out and get in place with your photographer because that’s typically when the family comes out and speaks and if there’s activists there who are speaking out against the death penalty occasionally they’ll speak, but it’s very quick because you’re trying to update, now in the world of social media, you’re trying to make sure that you’ve updated on social media, write something very quickly for the web and make sure that the web can write something very quickly and then get in place, and then everybody talks and then after everybody talks, that’s when everything -- it’s like amazing, it’s like instant, that’s it. Everything’s quiet again. And then you sit and you go prepare your article, your story for the later newscasts.
If you could use one word to describe your experience covering executions what would it be – and why?
Solemn. Everybody shows -- I know there have been incidents, but I have not been there for these incidents. Everybody typically shows the amount of respect necessitated by this situation. So, it’s a very solemn event. Nobody really talks. You just sit there and you do my job and trying to take notes -- especially if someone has a lengthy last statement and you’re writing furiously to make sure everything’s proper and, like I said, it’s very quiet and everybody gives the respect owed to the situation and that’s why I choose the word solemn.
In your notes -- what are some of the things that you’re writing?
I note the time that we walk in. I note when -- basically, you keep time and you note when the warden asks if there’s any final statements, then you write as fast as you can to make sure that you’re getting that final statement down properly, if there’s any kind of reaction to what the person is saying, you make sure you make note of that -- because if anything does happen in there, you obviously, have to report it, you can’t rely on a recording of it so you note that, and basically, how the person acts. The effects that they have. I’ve read, again -- I’ve never been a part of one when there was any kind of adverse or that I could tell there was any kind of adverse reaction and so you note that to determine if there’s been a problem or not. I have not seen any, so that’s the type of things that you’re writing down.
You have a family, a life outside of this, what’s it like to go back to that after covering this kind of thing?
You know if you let -- the things that we see in this job, if you let, if you dwell on them, they can really, really get to you. You have to understand, we see people, unfortunately at times when they are at their lowest. When they have suffered just an incredible trauma and their emotions are raw -sometimes you see that during an execution, sometimes you don’t, sometimes by the time it gets there, people are so emotionally drained, it’s hard for them to show any type of reaction.
My wife doesn’t like to talk about it, so that’s good. Because if I get going, sometimes I won’t stop so that’s good. And I mean, I have an 8 and a 3-year-old and life goes on, life is busy, life moves and so I think in a way, like I said, if I lived alone, it would probably be a much darker world for me. But because of that, you just keep going, you put it out of your mind and you focus on that, and like I said, it’s hard to dwell on it when I have such happy faces waiting for me when I come home. I’m lucky that I have that and that’s why it keeps me grounded.
Watch an edited version of this interview in the video player above. Editor’s Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and conciseness.