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AP reporter who observed 400+ executions in Texas retires

July 30, 2018
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In this June 12, 2013, file photo, Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk stands outside the Huntsville Unit before witnessing the execution of confessed killer Elroy Chester in Huntsville, Texas. Graczyk, who witnessed and chronicled more than 400 executions as a criminal justice reporter in Texas, will retire Tuesday, July 31, 2018, after 45 years. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)

HOUSTON (AP) — Associated Press journalist Michael Graczyk, who witnessed and chronicled more than 400 executions as a criminal justice reporter in Texas, will retire Tuesday after nearly 46 years with the news service.

Graczyk, 68, may have observed more executions than any other person in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Millions of readers in Texas and beyond relied on his coverage of capital punishment in America’s most active death penalty state.

He built a reputation for accuracy and fairness with death row inmates, their families, their victims’ families and their lawyers, as well as prison officials and advocates on both sides of capital punishment. He made a point of visiting and photographing every condemned inmate willing to be interviewed and talking to relatives of their victims. Over time, he became widely known as an authority on the death penalty and a witness to history.

Even after retiring, Graczyk will continue covering executions for the AP on a freelance basis, an arrangement he suggested.

Long ago, Graczyk said, he stopped keeping count of how many executions he observed. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s list of media witnesses includes his name 429 times, though that list is not exhaustive.

“It has given me a greater appreciation for life,” he said. “You get a real sense of life and how fast it can be taken.”

Noreen Gillespie, the AP’s deputy managing editor for U.S. news, said the significance of Graczyk’s work “can’t be underestimated.”

“Mike’s description of what happens in an execution is how the world and most of the country knows how that happens,” she said.

Graczyk joined the AP in 1972 in Detroit, shortly after graduating from Wayne State University. He moved to Houston in 1983 with his wife, Mary, and their two children.

Executions became his beat by happenstance. In 1982, Texas executed its first inmate since the Supreme Court allowed states to resume capital punishment. When the state prepared to conduct its second execution in 1986, Graczyk, as the Houston bureau manager, took the assignment.

Over time, he built a routine. He learned what to watch and listen for, and how to spot if something was wrong. In most cases, he said, observing an execution is “essentially watching someone go to sleep and they don’t wake up.”

The beat could be macabre and occasionally absurd.

In a 2013 piece to mark Texas’ 500th execution since resuming capital punishment, Graczyk recounted how one inmate called his name and said hello when he walked into the chamber. Another inmate strapped to the gurney spit out a handcuff key. And a third, for his last words, sang the Christmas carol “Silent Night.”

“Christmas, for me, never has been the same,” Graczyk wrote.

Hundreds of media outlets counted on Graczyk to cover each execution without an agenda.

“A lot of people do a lot of hard things in journalism, but what he’s done, the commitment he’s made to see those stories through, is amazing,” said Debbie Hiott, editor of the Austin American-Statesman.

“You never saw a slant one way or the other,” said Jason Clark, chief of staff of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “People picked up on that.”

Graczyk has been asked many times whether he believes the death penalty should be legal. He said he’s a practicing Catholic and respects the church’s teachings against capital punishment, but that he has not made up his own mind.

“I’m not dodging the question,” he said. “I don’t know.”

The job involved being more than an execution writer.

He covered hurricanes, interviewed former President George H.W. Bush several times and had an eye for feature stories that explained Texas to the world. He also reported on the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas.

In retirement, Graczyk said, he might write a book of fiction inspired by the characters he’s met. And he will keep covering executions, in part to stay busy, but also because he still enjoys the work.

“I found just the whole idea of covering these things to lend itself to really good stories, compelling stories,” he said.

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