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Sept. 10, 2015, 9:55 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Marshall Project teams up with local news outlets to track executions across America

Working with newspapers like the Houston Chronicle and sites like The Tulsa Frontier, The Marshall Project wants to bring more attention and accountability to capital punishment cases.

Harris County, Texas, is either near or at the top of the list of counties that execute the most criminals in the U.S. Harris County is also home to the Houston Chronicle, which means covering capital punishment is a regular duty for the newspaper — the individual cases, the stays of execution, the exonerations.

“Being in Texas, we have a reporter who covers upcoming executions,” said Chronicle deputy investigations editor Lise Olsen. “It’s part of the criminal justice beat.”

But the Chronicle’s coverage is limited to local and regional cases, the immediate lead-up to an execution and any legal proceedings surrounding it. These cases are part of a broader story about how capital punishment is used in America, as some states reject the death penalty while others push for new drugs to be used in lethal injections.

Now the Chronicle is one of several news outlets partnering with The Marshall Project to track executions across several states in the U.S. The Next to Die is designed as a database to follow upcoming executions, complete with details about death row inmates, their case history, and more.

The launch partners for the project include The Tampa Bay Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Tulsa Frontier, and With the help of those organizations, The Next to Die will cover Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Virginia, and Ohio. The Marshall Project built and will maintain the database that combines data from the Death Penalty Information Center as well as reporting from the partner organizations. The information will live on The Marshall Project’s site, with widgets and tools that partners can use on their own sites and which are embeddable by anyone on the web.

Olsen, who will work on the project for the Chronicle, said the database can provide a broader scope on capital punishment cases for readers. “We think there’s value in it. We have an ongoing commitment to writing about these cases and providing information on executions carried out in the name of all citizens,” she said.

As a site dedicated to covering the criminal justice system in America, capital punishment looms large for The Marshall Project. The site has run stories on Missouri’s high rate of executions and what happened in states that have abolished capital punishment.

Managing editor Gabriel Dance said they’ve been wanting to dig deeper into death penalty cases across the country, but the scope of the project proved to be too large for the fledgling organization. One of the biggest complicating factors was finding reliable, timely information on executions, he said. While places like the Death Penalty Information Center maintain data on executions, that information is not always complete, often updated only after an inmate has already been put to death.

What they wanted to create was a comprehensive database that could not only track cases as they progress, but could also be used to look for patterns around the types of people sentenced to death, the crimes, or the prosecutors responsible for the cases, Dance told me. They expect as more information is collected they more story ideas and possibilities for analysis will present themselves. How many inmates get a stay of execution and are there any similar circumstances? What district attorneys have a high conviction rate for death penalty cases?

The database is also purposefully narrow in scope: The focus is on the more immediate cases where execution is scheduled, not every inmate sitting on death row in each media company’s coverage area.

‘We know, from being small, and working at a lot of places, that no journalism ship has a lot of bandwidth for extra projects right now,” Dance said. “We wanted to make sure the ask was reasonable.”

Tom Meagher, The Marshall Project’s deputy managing editor, said they wanted to take a similar approach to collecting information as sites like PolitiFact and Homicide Watch. Namely, they wanted to create a system that could add some structure to the types of information already available. “It’s really tailored towards what a reporter covering this beat would already be picking up,” he said.

Meagher said the database could grow over time as reporters suggest different information fields that could be useful. One of the big benefits of the partnership is having a consortium of reporters who’ve covered capital punishment who can share ideas for gathering information and better stories, Meagher said.

It’s been almost a year since The Marshall Project launched, and in that time collaboration has been key to the site’s growth and reporting ambitions. The site was deliberate in starting off The Next to Die with a small number of publishers in states with scheduled executions.

At The Tulsa Frontier, they’ll be tracking cases in Oklahoma and Missouri, said Ziva Branstetter, the site’s editor-in-chief. Though the Frontier is a relatively young news startup, Branstetter previously covered death penalty cases for The Tulsa World, including the execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014.

That same focus has carried over to the Frontier. Branstetter said they’re tracking three scheduled executions in Oklahoma at the moment, with another across the border in Missouri.

Branstetter said the database could prove valuable to other reporters as well as the public. While there are nonprofits and advocacy groups tracking executions, many come to the subject with an agenda. “I always wanted to have something like this, and getting to help create it is pretty cool,” she said.

Branstetter said The Next to Die has the potential to create persistent coverage of capital punishment, rather than a story where journalists parachute in on the eve of executions. “The state is sending someone to death — this is the most severe action they can take,” she said. “We should cover it all with the same attention, no matter the manpower.”

Photo of a cell block by Sean Hobson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 10, 2015, 9:55 a.m.
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