Witnessing prayer on Texas' death row

Last night, the Supreme Court halted the execution of a man convicted of killing two people in Texas 16 years ago. There's no dispute about his guilt but his lawyers contend that the sentence itself was unfair because of a racial question asked during his sentencing trial. From the Associated Press:

Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist's testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.

Now, a couple of years ago there were some stories about the Associated Press reporter who covers executions in Texas. His name is Michael Graczyk. It is worth revisiting those stories. Here's the New York Times piece. Here's the piece from CNN.

Both are fascinating profiles of a man whose job has led him to witness more than 300 executions, which is more than anyone else on record. I give the CNN reporter credit for coming up with the story idea first, but both articles work together to provide a compelling portrait of an unbelievably professional journalist. We learn that over the years, inmates have confessed to him their crimes -- for the first time. Others have prayed. One spat out a concealed handcuff key. Through it all, he has been the consummate professional, viewing his work as a vocation in a way that many other reporters could learn from:

“My job is to tell a story and tell what’s going on, and if I tell you that I get emotional on one side or another, I open myself to criticism,” he said.

Both CNN and The Times mentioned that he's experienced some haunting memories. One dying man sang "Silent Night" even though it wasn't anywhere near Christmas. He told CNN that he thinks of that man every Christmas or Christmas Eve when he's in church.

I thought of all this when I was reading Graczyk's most recent story. Look at what he mentions in the midst of a fact-heavy account of sentencing disputes, trial proceedings, Texas protocol, presidential politics, execution statistics, Supreme Court decisions, writs of certiori, murder details and allegations of racism:

The reprieve from the nation's highest court came nearly two hours into a six-hour window when Buck could have been taken to the death chamber. Texas officials, however, refused to move forward with the punishment while legal issues were pending.

His lawyers called to tell Buck of the reprieve and the inmate was praying in his cell when Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark approached.

"Praise the Lord!" Buck told Clark. "God is worthy to be praised. God's mercy triumphs over judgment.

"I feel good."

It's a good reporter who can report on a murderer's prayer and thanksgiving in the midst of the rest.

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