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Witnessing death: AP reporters describe problem executions

Larry Greene, public information director of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, demonstrates how a curtain is pulled between the death chamber and witness room at the prison in Lucasville, Ohio, November 2005. Ohio is one of several states that have used midazolam as part of an execution by lethal injection. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

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The last of four executions carried out by Arkansas in April highlighted concerns about the drug midazolam. The sedative has been adopted by many states in recent years as part of their lethal injection protocol in place of barbiturates and anesthetics no longer available because manufacturers don’t want them used in executions.

As the AP’s execution witness, Little Rock-based News Editor Kelly Kissel reported that inmate Kenneth Williams lurched and convulsed 20 times before he died, leading to allegations that he had suffered while being put to death.

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Kenneth Williams shown in an undated file photo provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction. On Thursday, April 27, Williams lurched and convulsed 20 times during a lethal injection execution that began with the sedative midazolam. – ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION via AP

An immediate question that arose for Kissel and colleagues was this: How did the midazolam execution Kissel witnessed compare to others, some in other states, where problems were alleged?

It was a question the AP was uniquely positioned to answer. For its depth of coverage, the multi-state AP team wins this week’s Best of the States award.

The AP witnesses far more executions than any other news organization. And the AP had witnessed five other executions dating back to the beginning of 2014 in which questions arose about the effectiveness of midazolam in sedating inmates. Those executions led to court challenges arguing that use of the drug constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Early in the morning following the latest execution, AP decided on a compelling way to tell the story: Get all six of the reporter-witnesses to search their memories, their past coverage and their notes and tell focused stories about what they saw during the executions.

The team spanned the U.S.: Kissel, his Little Rock-based colleague Andrew DeMillo, Andrew Welsh-Huggins of Ohio, Sean Murphy of Oklahoma, Astrid Galvan of Arizona and Kim Chandler of Alabama.

Each of the six reporters wrote up text capsules and then shot iPhone video of themselves discussing the executions they witnessed.

Following a uniform format laid out by Central Region Multimedia Editor Shawn Chen, the reporters wrote up text capsules and then shot iPhone video of themselves discussing the executions. While Chen processed the video, Chicago-based reporter Tammy Webber pulled together the text. Photo editor Bob Graves pulled photos of each of the inmates.

Chen then created a stack in APNews.com, presenting text summaries along with the reporters speaking about the executions on video. Chen then took the extra step of creating a composite photo of the six inmates that was used for social media promotion of the piece.

For providing a unique story that harnessed the AP’s unmatched geographic reach and reporting strength,this week’s $300 Best of the States award goes to Welsh-Huggins,Murphy,Galvan,Chandler,DeMillo,Kissel, Webber and Chen.

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