I Spent Six Years Running a News App Tracking Executions in America
Adapted from a Twitter thread I put together when we ended The Marshall Project’s long-running feature, The Next to Die, which monitored and reported on every execution scheduled in the country for many years.
On Feb. 11, Alabama planned to execute Willie B. Smith III. It was the first scheduled execution in the U.S. since The Next to Die began in 2015 that we weren’t monitoring. And the execution—which was stayed by the courts and did not proceed that night—left me mulling many of the challenges facing data journalists and the state of capital punishment in the U.S.
When we started The Marshall Project over six years ago, capital punishment was an important part of our coverage of the criminal justice system. Our first major stories were on the death penalty. Gabriel Dance, our then managing editor, was really keen to do something data-driven and visual on it, and so was I. We wanted to raise the general public’s awareness of executions and nourish a sense of urgency about the issue. There were groups collecting calendars of executions, but we needed minute-by-minute information. We didn’t want this to be abstract. People were being put to death today, and it felt like no one really paid much attention.
Gabriel’s original idea was to make a simple clock that counted down the time until the next execution, but we couldn’t find a data source detailed enough. It didn’t exist. The important theme was time: The minutes until someone was facing the executioner, the days since someone was killed. Pegging it to the fleeting, and universal, nature of time would make people pay attention, we hoped.
If we were going to pull this off, we decided, we had to make our own data.
So in early 2015, Gabriel and I started planning how we could tackle this. We didn’t have expertise in these disparate parts of the country where the executions were happening. But we knew people who did: local reporters covering the courts and prisons.
Largely through connections made through Investigative Reporters and Editors, we pieced together a network of journalists around the country. Michelle Holmes in Alabama. Lise Olsen in Houston. Cary Aspinwall and Ziva Branstetter in Oklahoma. Adam Playford in Tampa, and others.
With these journalists, we could make the data we needed, up to the minute, and also provide more detailed background on each case, all in one place: The Next to Die What began as Gabriel’s idea for a simple, jarring graphic evolved into a full-fledged news app.
To make all this doable by a small team, we wrote thousands of lines of code to automate much of the production work, to redraw graphics and to power an automated Twitter bot for the project.
The site itself was built around the idea of time slipping away, and Gabriel and Andy Rossback’s designs tied it together to a T.
With help from Ivar Vong, we launched publicly in September of 2015, days before Oklahoma wanted to execute Richard Glossip. (They didn’t, though they likely will try again.)
Capital cases were happening that we could help to shine a light on, and our partners were great. More and more reporters got involved. At various points, more than 40 people at 11 news outlets contributed to The Next to Die. Among our most prolific contributors were Maurice Chammah, now the author of the excellent new book “Let the Lord Sort Them”, and Keri Blakinger, who started with us when she was at the Houston Chronicle and later joined The Marshall Project.
More states started seriously planning executions, and so we added them to our tracker. And then came the feds. We began with 9 states and grew to cover 15 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.
But we never really planned for how we might end it.
The executions kept coming, and coming. Even after Gabriel went back to The New York Times, and many of our reporting partners left their papers for new jobs, executions kept happening. Hundreds of people were given death dates and scores executed.
Even as the death penalty is in steep decline, it’s not dead and gone yet. And it isn’t going be in the near future. I started scheming with Maurice and Keri about new ways we could write about capital punishment at The Marshall Project and how we could tell larger stories that would get more people’s attention. That led to our new series, Death Sentences. With Death Sentences gaining steam, it felt like a good time to wind down The Next to Die.
Five and a half years is a long time to do any project, particularly one as voluminous, and traumatic, as monitoring every single execution, writing about the people facing death and the people who lost their lives in crimes. To end the Next to Die, we looked back at the data we’d collected and found trends that raise questions about how fairly and how well the criminal justice dispenses punishment.
To do this, another amazing of group of Marshall Project colleagues—Andrew Calderón, Katie Park, Elan Kiderman, Gabe Isman, David Eads and more—helped me tell the story with a haunting and stark design.
Looking back, I’m acutely aware of how lucky I’ve been to have so many great collaborators and to work at a news organization like The Marshall Project. Beyond Gabriel, editors Bill Keller, Kirsten Danis and Susan Chira have been incredibly supportive of the project from the outset. Now, after thousands of hours of reporting and coding and tens of thousands of words written, the Next to Die is over.
Here’s my advice for other journalists who want to do this kind of work. Be bold. If the data you need doesn’t exist, make it. Build crazy systems to collect it (and vet it). Recruit like-minded journalists to help you. And try at the start to think how you’re going to end it.
On that note, I’ve got to get back to collecting our weekly data on the spread and toll of coronavirus in American prisons.
But first, I’ve got to go talk with Keri Blakinger about our next Death Sentences story she’s working on.