By Kaitlin Bell

Washington, D.C. — The death penalty is a critical journalism issue because any coverage could save a person’s life. 

Rodney Reed, a Texas death row inmate, became the source of countless news stories when it came to light that he may be innocent. After being given an execution date of November 20, 2019, Reed’s family decided to share his story across the country — a story of his innocence. 

Reed’s family protested outside the Governor’s Mansion in Texas and the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. They even appeared on the Dr. Phil show in October 2019. This launch into the national spotlight caught the attention of millions including other celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Oprah. Their main concern — would Texas execute a man without a second look into new evidence?

Richard Dieter, board member of the organization Witness to Innocence

Richard Dieter is a board member for the nonprofit Witness to Innocence, a national organization that empowers exonerated death row survivors to be an effective voice in the struggle to end the death penalty. Dieter elaborated on the importance of wrongful conviction stories in the media. “Wrongful convictions highlight the most broken aspects of our criminal justice system,” Dieter said. He also said that minorities are among those most impacted by wrongful convictions.

In death penalty cases, wrongful convictions leads to the death of innocents. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 166 people have been exonerated from death row after proving their innocence. 62% of all exonerations on death row have been people of color. 

Dieter also said that Rodney Reed’s story is not the only case for innocence right now. In Florida, Air Force veteran, James Dailey, was given an execution date for November 7, 2019. Local media and advocates in the area began promoting his case for innocence. This case is based on a signed affidavit of guilt from a different man. 

Dale Recinella, a Catholic chaplain, has spent 21 years ministering to Dailey. Recinella has been a leading force in promoting Dailey’s story of innocence to Florida outlets. “How are we going to be at peace if we have killed an innocent man?” said Recinella. “I believe he’s innocent based on everything I’ve been able to experience and to read.” Recinella also said that Dailey’s case is a prominent point for Florida’s death row. If executed, Dailey will be the state’s 100th execution; however, if proven innocent, he will become its 30th exoneration.

Outside of innocence cases, the federal government has also created journalism buzz around the death penalty. On July 25, 2019, Attorney General William Barr announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision to resume federal executions. Along with the announcement, five execution dates were set spanning December 2019 through January 2020. 

These inmates, housed at a federal penitentiary, would be the first to be executed by the federal government since 2003. Last Thursday, November 21, 2019, a federal judge in D.C., Tanya Chutkan, ruled that the current execution procedure provided by the DOJ was a violation of federal law. 

Currently 21 states, and the District of Columbia, have outlawed capital punishment while another four states are in governor-imposed moratoriums. California, whose moratorium was instituted in March 2019, has the largest death row population in the nation. While Texas, who still actively employs the death penalty, has executed more inmates than any other state. 

The death penalty intersects with many popular journalism topics like racial bias and mass incarceration. These intersections prompt journalists to focus efforts on a topic that many Americans avoid. With innocence as a factor, these stories have the ability to create a life-altering, life-saving impact.