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Death Chamber Photos? Fla. Prohibition Challenged

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Death Chamber Photos? Fla. Prohibition Challenged

Article excerpt

A Tallahassee newsman wants to videotape and photograph electric chair executions. He says state rules prohibiting cameras are not valid because of a legislative oversight.


IN A CASE that could pave the way for newspaper photographers to cover executions, a Florida journalist is challenging a Department of Corrections rule banning photography equipment in the death chamber.

Mike Vasilinda, who owns and operates Capitol News Service, is seeking the right to have a television camera present at executions. If he succeeds, still cameras, artists' equipment and tape recorders would also be allowed. Capitol News is a Tallahassee-based television video production firm that provides news reports to most NBC affiliates in the state.

Florida uses the electric chair for executions; four inmates were put to death in March.

"The public has a right to have the light of day shown upon the exercise of this very awesome, ultimate power of the state," said Vasilinda, who has witnessed three executions during his career. He is contesting a 1977 Corrections Department rule barring all forms of video and audio gear, even artists' paraphernalia, from the area where witnesses view executions. His legal challenge is slated to be heard by an administrative law judge later this month.

He claims the departmental rule was not properly adopted because the legislature failed to take all the actions required to fully authorize it.

In response, state lawmakers are scrambling to adopt a bill to prevent cameras from covering executions. The state attorney general's office is also arguing against allowing cameras m the death chamber.

In interviews, Florida newspaper editors generally line up on the side of photo access. They want to be able to make decisions about whether or not to send a photographer to cover an execution without government interference. At the same time, they admit that the decision to actually publish death chamber images in the newspaper involves editorial issues of judgment, taste, community sensibilities and news value.

"To me it's a public right-to-know issue," explained Vasilinda. 'A couple of letters to the St. Petersburg Times accused me of wanting to put executions on television. I know of no responsible television station in Florida that would televise an execution at the actual moment of death."

He has not solicited support from any other media organizations and, so far, none has been offered. …

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