As the Alabama Corrections Department prepared to execute Joe Nathan James Jr. Thursday night, against the wishes of his victim’s family members, an agency official told a reporter she would not be allowed to witness the murder because her skirt was too short.
The journalist, AL.com’s Ivana Hrynkiwhad worn the skirt to previous performances “without incident”, she written in a statement. Even after pulling the skirt up to her hips to make the hem fall lower, she was still told it was “not appropriate,” she wrote. Determined to do her job, Hrynkiw borrowed waterproof fisherman’s pants from a photographer she had never met, tucking the suspenders under her shirt to keep the pants from falling down.
The Department of Corrections spokesperson determined it was more professional attire, but took issue with Hrynkiw’s high-heeled open-toed shoes, saying they were “too revealing”. After changing into the tennis shoes she had in her car, Hrynkiw was finally allowed to cover the execution.
“It was an uncomfortable situation, and I felt embarrassed to have my body and clothes questioned in front of a room of people most of whom I had never met,” Hrynkiw wrote. I sat down, tried to stop blushing and did my job. As women often have to do.
Another reporter who was present, Lee Hedgepeth of the local CBS affiliate, confirmed Thursday that the department told a reporter that her skirt was too short to watch the execution, prompting her to borrow pants from a colleague.
The Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Media witnesses play an essential role in bringing a modicum of transparency to executions, which are shrouded in secrecy. The correctional services generally keep secret the identity of the executioners and the source of the drugs used – which are sometimes purchased with cash to avoid a paper trail. The few media witnesses allowed in the room testify to state-sponsored killings, alerting the public to unusual delays, breaches of protocol and signs of pain — although autopsies of individuals who were executed suggest that even those who appear to have died peacefully may have known painfully painful deaths. Media witness observations have been used in federal litigation challenging the constitutionality of enforcement protocols.
Prison services heavily restrict media access to executions, usually allowing only a small number of pre-screened reporters into the room. They are often only let into the room after the slain individual has been strapped to the stretcher, sometimes with an obstructed view of the murder. Attending executions is a traumatic experience, and journalists who do describe feeling incredible pressure to accurately capture detail while watching someone get killed.
On Thursday, Hrynkiw had to do the difficult job, wearing ill-fitting clothes loaned to him by a stranger, while a government official watched his appearance in front of his colleagues.
Thanks to Hrynkiw and other witnesses to James’ execution, we know that the murder was delayed more than three hours and that the Alabama Department of Corrections declined to explain why.
The state killed James by lethal injection as punishment for killing his ex-girlfriend Faith Hall in 1994. Earlier this month, Hall’s daughter and several family members petitioned the governor of the Alabama Kay Ivey (R) stays the execution. Ivey denied the request, and James was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. Thursday.
“Justice has been served” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall claimed after the murder.
But Hall’s family members, who declined to witness the execution, didn’t see it that way. “We hoped the state would not take a life simply because a life was taken and we have forgiven Mr. Joe Nathan James Jr. for his atrocities to our family,” they said in a statement.