Reporter to continue as witness to executions
After 45 years, AP writer retires, but not from Death Row duties
Carly Geraci/Staff Photographer Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk, shown at his retirement party with colleague Diana Heidgerd, covered 429 Texas executions, the news agency calculated.

Michael Graczyk watched people die for a living.

Year after year, when the state of Texas would strap an inmate to the gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Graczyk was there to pay witness.

Now, after 45 years and more than 400 executions, he is retiring from his full-time job as an Associated Press correspondent.

But he is not giving up the work of witnessing death. Graczyk has asked, and the AP has agreed, to let him continue covering executions.

The work is too important to stop, Graczyk said Tuesday morning on his last full day of work as he sat in Dallas’ AP bureau, a yellowed press badge hanging from the lanyard around his neck.

“I can’t think of any greater authority that the government has than the power to take your life or my life,” he said. “If they’re going to do that and there’s a law that says they can, then it’s up to people like me to see if it’s being done properly.”

After all he’s seen, Graczyk believes he is uniquely qualified to be a watchdog over the process from start to finish.

“If there is a botched execution, I think it’s important for someone like me to be there and explain, ‘Here’s what happened,’” he said.

The AP counts 429 executions Graczyk covered based on the number of times his name came up on witness lists kept by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Graczyk, 68, didn’t know the exact number. He stopped counting nearly 20 years ago.

There was criticism that each execution was like a notch in a gun belt.

“I didn’t like that,” he said.

Far more important to him were the details of each case.

The condemned, the victims, the terrible complicated murders.

It all required great journalistic care, often under the most severe deadline pressure.

“There was one week when they did four,” Graczyk said.

“You have to be so conscious of getting the right names, the right facts and circumstances.”

Noreen Gillespie, the AP’s deputy managing editor for U.S. news, called Graczyk “an institution.”

“Mike’s reporting is how much of the world knows about and understands the death penalty in America. Often, he was the only, or one of the only, reporters to be there as an execution happened,” Gillespie said in an emailed comment to The Dallas Morning News.

“He has done so much more than bear witness to the conclusion of criminal cases — his reporting has shaped how lawyers, politicians and citizens think about the death penalty.”

Detroit to Houston

Born in 1949, Graczyk grew up in Detroit and graduated in 1971 with a degree in mass communications from Wayne State University. He started at the AP in 1972, where one of his first big stories was reporting on the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, former president of the Teamsters union. Eleven years later, he transferred to Houston, with his wife, Mary, and their two children, Chris and Emily.

It wasn’t executions that filled his time at first, but weather.

No sooner had he arrived in 1983 than Hurricane Alicia hit Houston and Galveston.

It was just a hint of the frenetic pace he’d keep over the next 35 years.

“We’ve been on that treadmill ever since,” he said, running through a partial list of hurricanes he’s covered, from Katrina to Ike and Rita to last year’s Harvey, which devastated Houston and much of the Gulf Coast.

In the meantime, he covered the rise and fall and rise again of the oil business and the collapse of the savings and loan industry, with its catastrophic effects on Texas and the nation. “I did Enron,” he said, referring to the bankruptcy of Enron Corp., with its disastrous impact on thousands of employees, related businesses and Wall Street.

But it was crime that seemed to always grab the headlines.

Graczyk can’t drive past the southeast Texas town of Jasper without thinking of the lynching of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a pickup along a secluded road one night. Graczyk was there the next morning to report the story. And he was there to witness the 2011 execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of three men convicted in connection with Byrd’s murder.

In vivid, dispassionate prose for a report dated Sept. 22, 2011, Graczyk wrote: White supremacist gang member Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday evening for the infamous dragging death slaying of James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas.

Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and pulled whip-like to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in one of the most grisly hate crime murders in recent Texas history.

Brewer, 44, was asked if he had any final words, to which he replied: “No. I have no final statement.”

Graczyk said the first execution he witnessed was in 1984 for condemned murderer J.D.

“Cowboy” Autry, only the second prisoner to be executed by lethal injection in Texas. Autry had been convicted in the 1980 shooting death of a Port Arthur convenience clerk after arguing with her over the price of a sixpack of beer. He also killed a witness, a Roman Catholic priest.

The case took a bizarre twist.

About 15 minutes before midnight, Autry was strapped to the gurney and needles inserted in his arms. A saline solution was running through the tubes and the staff was waiting until midnight when they could turn on the drugs. With minutes to spare, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay. “There was a big uproar that this was cruel and unusual,” Graczyk said.

After that incident, the rules changed. “They do not put a prisoner on the gurney until everything legally is done and they get a green light saying it’s OK to move forward. And that’s because of what happened to Autry,” Graczyk said.

Graczyk was there again when Autry was later put to death. A pen-pal girlfriend of Autry’s was invited to be a witness.

“She was crying and wailing” and moaning about Autry’s “pretty brown eyes,” Graczyk recalled.

Autry slipped into unconsciousness and the woman started to compose herself.

“But all of a sudden his eyes popped back open,” Graczyk said. “And she goes bonkers.”

Autry was dead, but his eyes wouldn’t stay shut. 

Keeping a routine

Over the years, Graczyk developed a routine.

He would talk to the condemned inmate on the Wednesday before the scheduled execution.

He prepared his reports ahead of time, so all he had to do was include the time of death and the inmate’s last words. But he was always on the lookout for something out of the ordinary.

He would get to the Huntsville Unit, where the death chamber is located, at least two hours early to check in with staff on the prisoner’s state of mind and other last-minute details.

He had to address the media pool, typically TV reporters assembled outside the prison in Huntsville, and tell them what he saw. “So you’re furiously taking notes, checking your watch to get the time — it was very intense.”

Several moments stand out.

An inmate strapped to the gurney suddenly spit out a handcuff key. “He hid it under his tongue all day long,” Graczyk said.

Another, for his last words, sang the Christmas carol “Silent Night.” On several occasions, the condemned walked into the death chamber and called out Graczyk’s name in greeting because he had interviewed them.

He saw the needle pop out of a vein. It happened before there was a physical barrier between the witnesses and the condemned inmate. Only a rail separated them — “just a little out of arm’s reach.”

“I’m sitting there watching and all of a sudden I see a squirt like a water fountain,” he said.

After that incident, the prison put up a clear plastic barrier with bars. There are now two witness viewing rooms, side-byside — one reserved for victims’ families and the other for the inmate’s invited witnesses. Reporters use both. The rooms are about 6 feet wide and a dozen feet deep. “It’s very narrow, and reporters are usually the last ones in the room,” he said.

He often found himself squeezed into a crowded room, standing behind tall people and having to duck and peek between shoulders to watch what was happening.

“You want to see what’s going on because that’s why you’re there. At the same time, you’re listening to the speaker over your head so you can hear what the inmate has to say,” he said.

He could bring with him only a pen or pencil and a pad of paper. No recording devices allowed.

He got to know some prisoners very well because of their long stints on Death Row, including Henry Lee Lucas, a oneeyed confessed serial killer. His death sentence was later commuted to life in prison by then- Gov. George W. Bush after problems arose regarding the evidence used to convict Lucas.

Lucas told him he would use his glass eye to scare new inmates in prison. “He’d pop out his eye, put it on a shelf and tell his new cell mate ‘Don’t you go stealing anything. I’ve got my eye on you.’”

Graczyk attended Lucas’ funeral and wrote about it. The killer was buried at the prison cemetery. 

Getting both sides

He requested an interview with every prisoner scheduled for execution. He never wanted an inmate to say, “I wanted to tell my side of the story but no one would listen to me.”

Graczyk believed if someone were to say that, “it would be an indictment of how reporters, like me, are either doing or not doing their job.”

He also made every effort to talk to relatives of the murder victims, knowing there was always more of a focus on the convicted murderer around the time of an execution. “Some would talk, some didn’t,” he said. “I understand their reluctance.

I’m calling out of the blue and asking them to relive the most horrific day of their lives.”

When it comes to his personal views on the death penalty and what he’s learned from covering hundreds of executions, he’s almost apologetically agnostic.

“I don’t know,” he said, quickly adding that he’s not dodging the question. He understands the issue and the conflict as well as anybody. As a practicing Roman Catholic, he understands the church’s anti-death penalty teaching.

“I don’t know,” he repeats.

He’s not haunted by his experiences in the death chamber.

But he does have a heightened sense of “all the dangers out there,” he said. “All parents are worried about their kids, but you have this firsthand knowledge of just how dangerous it is.”

If he’s haunted by anything, it’s how fragile and narrow the space is between life and death.

“This person on the gurney, living, breathing, who’s talking to us and in two cases said hello to me, and less than a minute later, they’re dead. And likewise, in most cases, the person they’re convicted of killing also died a sudden and violent death.

“You gain an insight and appreciation for just how precious life is. And how quickly it can go away.”

Twitter: @davetarrantnews