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The Dennis Skillicorn execution: Why it was front page news

Friday, May 22, 2009 | 4:25 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Dennis Skillicorn died at 12:34 a.m. Wednesday. He was executed in Bonne Terre by the state.

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Print Missourian readers woke up Wednesday with the news that Gov. Nixon had denied clemency to the man convicted of robbing, kidnapping and murdering Richard Drummond.  The story made it pretty dang clear that Skillicorn was about to receive a lethal cocktail of drugs.

Important, urgent story meets immovable force – deadline.

A week before, I reminded the staff of the Missourian policy: Any time there’s a state-sanctioned execution, that event makes Page One, print and online.

The policy stands even in times when executions become more commonplace. There has been a four-year hiatus as the courts have deliberated whether Missouri’s mix of lethal drugs was constitutional. But, according to an Associated Press story Thursday, we could expect two more this summer.

The policy’s logic is simple. Killing someone is the ultimate expression of power by a government. That’s not a pro- or anti-death penalty statement; it’s a journalistic judgment that state execution is and should remain a Big Deal.

At the risk of drawing howls, I’ll draw from elections to make the point.

Few people would argue that Election Day results belong on the front page. It’s an easy call when we’re electing the president. But we hold elections at least twice a year, and some of them are, well, not the most exciting affairs.

Newsrooms don’t debate whether coverage belongs on the front, regardless. The act itself is fundamental to our exercise in democracy.

The same holds for executions. As a people, we should never become immune or apathetic to the power we hold in taking a life. The newspaper bears a responsibility for shining a light on the event.

Of course, reality bites.

At 12:27 a.m., according to news editor Mary Lawrence, the AP moved a notice that there was no word yet from Bonne Terre prison.

Mary’s deadline to send the pages to the pressroom in Jefferson City was 12:30 a.m. Every minute costs money and threatens the Missourian’s ability to deliver the paper to your doorstep.

So she made the call and sent the front page with the story of Skillicorn’s imminent death.

I applaud her courage for holding on to the last minute – I’ve been fairly adamant about our need to meet deadlines – and appreciate the anxious moments she and others spent waiting for the news. The night editing desk is one of those few jobs in which you don’t wind down at the end of the day. You can mosey down the road at the beginning of the shift, but it’s race-car quick by the end.

Online editing is downright easy by comparison. You get the story. You edit the story. You put the story online.

I’m sure there will be more anxious minutes coming. The AP reports that the Supreme Court set June 17 as the execution date for Reginald Clemons, a guy who pushed two sisters off a bridge and to their deaths.

Tom

 


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