As the Alabama Department of Corrections prepared to execute Joe Nathan James Jr. on Thursday night, against the wishes of his victim’s family members, an agency official told a journalist that she would not be allowed to witness the killing because her skirt was too short.
The journalist, AL.com’s Ivana Hrynkiw, had worn the skirt to previous executions “without incident,” she wrote in a statement. Even after pulling the skirt down to her hips to make the hemline fall lower, she was still told it was “not appropriate,” she wrote. Determined to do her job, Hrynkiw borrowed waterproof fisherman’s wader pants from a photographer she had never met, stuffing the suspenders under her shirt to keep the pants from falling down.
The Department of Corrections spokesperson determined this was a more professional outfit, but proceeded to take issue with Hrynkiw’s open-toe high-heeled shoes, claiming they were “too revealing.” After changing into tennis shoes she had in her car, Hrynkiw was finally permitted to cover the execution.
“This was an uncomfortable situation, and I felt embarrassed to have my body and my clothes questioned in front of a room of people I mostly had never met,” Hrynkiw wrote. I sat down, tried to stop blushing, and did my work. As women often have to do.”
Another reporter who was present, Lee Hedgepeth, of the local CBS affiliate, confirmed on Thursday that the department told a reporter her skirt was too short to witness 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 serve a vital role in bringing a modicum of transparency to executions, which are shrouded in secrecy. Corrections departments typically keep secret the identities of the executioners and the source of the drugs used — which are sometimes purchased in cash to avoid a paper trail. The few media witnesses allowed in the room bear witness to state-sponsored killings, alerting the public to unusual delays, breakdowns in protocol and signs of pain — although autopsies of individuals who have been executed suggest that even those who appear to have died peacefully may have experienced torturously painful deaths. Observations from media witnesses have been used in federal litigation challenging the constitutionality of execution protocols.
Corrections departments heavily restrict media access to executions, typically allowing only a small number of pre-selected journalists in the room. They are often only let in the room after the individual being killed has been strapped down to the gurney, sometimes with an obstructed view of the killing. Witnessing executions is a traumatic experience, and the journalists who do it describe feeling incredible pressure to accurately capture details while watching someone be killed.
On Thursday, Hrynkiw had to do that difficult work, wearing ill-fitting clothes loaned to her by a stranger, while a government official policed her appearance in front of her colleagues.
Because of Hrynkiw and the other witnesses to James’ execution, we know the killing was delayed by more than three hours and that the Alabama Department of Corrections has refused to explain why. On Friday, after multiple inquiries from reporters, the agency put out a vague statement suggesting there was an issue setting the intravenous lines.
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 asked Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to stay the execution. Ivey denied the request and James was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. on Thursday.
“Justice has been served,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall claimed after the killing.
But Hall’s family members, who declined to attend the execution, didn’t see it that way. “We hoped the state wouldn’t take a life simply because a life was taken and we have forgiven Mr. Joe Nathan James Jr. for his atrocities toward our family,” they said in a statement.