In January, as coronavirus cases spiked throughout the country, George Hale and Adam Pinsker, reporters for Indiana Public Media, made their final trip to the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where federal death row is housed.
The Trump administration restarted federal executions last July after a 17-year hiatus. It became Hale and Pinsker’s job to witness and document the government’s execution spree, an arduous task under regular circumstances, made dangerous by COVID-19. Covering these executions meant spending several nights in a hotel and long days in and around the prison, where the coronavirus was rampant. In the end, the Trump administration executed 13 people, all during the pandemic.
Bureau of Prisons officials insisted that the executions — which brought together hundreds of staff, media, family members and protesters from all over the country — were being done in the safest manner possible. But Hale and Pinsker, who witnessed nearly all 13, saw firsthand what was going on. Hale tweeted repeatedly about officials who participated in the executions failing to wear masks. The witnesses were often crammed together in small areas for long periods of time. Social distancing was impossible. Two people imprisoned at the Terre Haute facility ― but not on death row ― sued the government to halt the executions, arguing that the gatherings were putting them in danger of contracting the virus, but still, the killings continued.
Hale and Pinsker’s last trip to Terre Haute was to cover the executions of Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, which occurred in the final week of Donald Trump’s presidency. (BOP denied the journalists’ request to witness Montgomery’s killing but they reported on it from outside the execution chamber.)
Johnson and Higgs, the last two people Hale and Pinsker watched die, were both recovering from COVID-19 when they were executed. The reporters noted in their coverage that lung damage from the virus may have made the deaths of the two men more painful.
Shortly after they returned home, Hale and Pinsker both tested positive for the coronavirus. Hale immediately notified BOP of those test results but the government declined to perform contact tracing or notify other media witnesses about their potential exposure to the virus.
Hale suffered a headache and chest tightness; Pinsker was fatigued and lost his sense of taste and smell. Both feel better now.
Between them, they witnessed 12 executions in six months. HuffPost talked to them over Zoom about their work, their illness and their efforts to do their own contact tracing when the government refused to help. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What went through your mind when you got your positive test results?
George Hale: For me, it was sort of just like, “Well, how about that.” It was just a week earlier the government was basically calling me crazy. Some of my observations [about officials not wearing masks in the execution chamber] were cited in a lawsuit against the prison. The government said everyone was wearing masks the entire time, though one of them might have lifted it up for a second to say something.
It was sort of a weird feeling of vindication. After being told my version of this was not true, lo and behold, I test positive for COVID-19 literally a week to the day.
Adam Pinsker: Pardon the language, I was scared shitless. It was sort of the fear of the unknown. There’s been people that are very healthy in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have died from this thing. Science is still trying to figure out the long-term effects of this virus and what it does to you.
It’s obviously difficult to say with certainty where you contracted the virus. But do you both believe it was in relation to the trip to Terre Haute?
AP: If you asked me to bet $1,000 on it being [from the last Terre Haute trip], I swear I would. I would say with the utmost certainty that I contracted it between that Tuesday that we were out there and then coming back on Saturday.
GH: It could have been before the prison, I think it’s certainly possible, but I don’t know where. Nothing comes to mind. I don’t do anything. In my opinion, the crazy thing about us getting COVID isn’t that it’s likely we got it there, even though it’s very possible. It’s that it shows the danger of doing [these executions] because you’re also bringing people there who could have COVID. So regardless of where we got it, just the fact that we both tested positive underscores how reckless it was for them to hold these executions in the middle of a pandemic.
George, you’ve been tweeting for months now about how staffers participating in the executions have been inconsistent with mask-wearing. Can you tell us more about what you’ve observed?
GH: I don’t know if inconsistent is the right word, honestly, because it’s very consistent — it seems like it’s always the marshal who wears the mask. Right, Adam?
AP: The marshal wears his. It’s the Department of Justice employee who reads the death warrant — that’s the guy I’ve never seen wear it. I know it’s been the same dude most of the time. Middle-aged, bald, white guy. They just don’t wear them when they read the death warrant. Every prisoner, except for a handful, has worn a mask up until the moment they’re asked to give a final statement. They remove the surgical mask. So if that prisoner has COVID, if he or she still has the virus before they kill them, the Department of Justice person who is not wearing his mask is going to have it as well or is gonna catch it. That’s not a very big room.
GH: I write every single thing down. Sometimes it was hanging off their ear, around their neck or something like that. Other times, it was not anywhere to be seen at all. In Corey Johnson’s case, there was absolutely no mask. I was at this point obsessed with this issue and so I feel like there’s no way that I remember that wrong.
Reporters take a bus to the prison, right?
GH: Yeah, this is where I think it is the riskiest. They put the journalists in these two white vans and they drive them over. For Corey Johnson’s execution, for example, I was sitting in the seat right behind the driver. One of the DOJ spokespeople was in the passenger seat in the front. Immediately to my right was a journalist from a TV station in Terre Haute, and then right behind me was a newspaper reporter with the Star Tribune. There is no social distancing, whatsoever. We were all 2 feet away from each other. I’ve been stuck in the van for about an hour before. Adam’s been in the van for several hours.
In the execution chamber itself, it’s a very small room and they pack five to six journalists, plus some guards, plus the two DOJ spokespeople who were in either van. When the curtain comes up, everyone rushes to the two windows that are looking into the chamber. So the journalists are also smashed against each other. I was basically cheek-to-cheek with a guard for half an hour.
About 18 hours after witnessing the execution of Corey Johnson, George, you began to show symptoms of COVID-19. You got tested a few days later. One week after the execution, you got positive results. You notified the BOP shortly afterwards. Can you describe what actions they took in response?
GH: I really thought that if I just told them, they would take it seriously. I wasn’t angry or accusatory. I was just like, hey, I got tested for COVID and it was positive, and as you know, I was around all these people who should probably get tested. It seems like that would have been enough for them to just send an email out. They wrote back and said something like we only do contact tracing if someone has shown symptoms within two days of being here, but I didn’t test positive until the 21st, so no action is required.
When I got that email, I was like great, they’re not going to do anything. I had to check my mental Rolodex and think about every single person I encountered, to do their contact tracing for them. It’s not even possible, of course, because I have no idea how to reach them. (Hale was especially worried about the bus driver who transports witnesses to the execution chamber.)
When you know for sure that you were exposing people, it takes it to the next level of urgency. It’s not like some theoretical thing ― I have COVID-19 right now! I was literally, days ago, sitting right behind your staff member, next to another journalist. We were all breathing the same air and we sat there in the bus for 45 minutes with the windows rolled up because it was cold outside. It makes you feel guilty or responsible. Am I going to be responsible for that guy’s kid getting COVID? His grandmother getting COVID?
AP: They’ve done background checks on everybody who is a witness, so they have a database of names. They should be responsible for the contact tracing.
Given the outbreak on death row and at the Terre Haute prison, attending the executions posed a risk of contracting COVID-19. How did you and your editors decide that the coverage was worth the risk?
GH: [Our editors are] very safety conscious to the extent that’s possible. We have testing plans in place and that’s actually why we know I had COVID. There was a test scheduled on that Tuesday because I’d been in the prison, and that’s something that we all do before going back into the newsroom and risking sharing it with someone else.
NPR does not have anyone else doing this [witnessing the federal executions]. For us to cancel and not go, literally, it’s not in the newscast. I don’t even know how many millions of people then do not have access to this process where the government is deciding to kill one of its own citizens. It’s a ridiculous situation to put the journalists in. Maybe we should have asked Reporters Without Borders to come. How crazy is it that these are the options? Americans can know what is going on only if [we] decide to participate in this insane process.
Aside from getting sick, how has covering these executions impacted you? Would you do it again?
AP: No. I would not do it again. I’m a pretty cynical person, it’s easy for me to detach from things, but this wasn’t one of them. It was a delayed reaction. I cried late at night and kind of took my partner by surprise. I couldn’t really suppress the feeling anymore.
It’s just not natural. It runs through my mind a lot that I’ve seen these people die. And that we do this in the U.S., whether you agree with it or not. You’re watching someone speak for a moment in a scripted, choreographed event, and then 20 minutes later, they’re dead. It’s very dystopian, very unnatural, and it really bothered me.
GH: I was with a reporter who’d never been there before for Alfred Bourgeois’ execution [on Dec. 11]. Afterwards, she was upset. She said she felt physically ill and asked if I did too. I told her I worked in the Middle East. I covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for eight years based in the West Bank. But what we just saw is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
It wasn’t a missile or a suicide bombing. It was the most calculated, planned, choreographed killing of someone who was perfectly healthy when we all walked in the room. It wasn’t somebody’s dying grandmother on their hospital bed taking their last breaths. It’s a living, breathing, healthy person who we are all there to watch the government kill.