In December the LA Weekly celebrated its 30th anniversary with a series of reminisces from eras past. Here’s my contribution.
A Matter of Life and Death
Sara Catania, staff writer, 1996-2004
In the spring of 1998, LA Weekly editor Sue Horton assigned me to write about Horace Kelly, a mentally ill man on California’s death row who faced imminent execution because his attorneys had missed the filing deadline to argue him mentally unfit to be put to death.
The piece recounted the tortuous trajectory of the case and details of Kelly’s grim life. It also included, at Sue’s insistence, reaction from the family of Kelly’s victim, a young boy.
I resisted talking with that family. I knew the story I was writing would in the end argue against execution of the mentally ill man who killed their kin. Did advocacy journalism really require balance? Sue said yes. How could one win anyone over to one’s argument if one did not present one’s case honestly and completely? Only then could one claim the moral high ground, she said.
After the story was published – the first and only coverage of the case at that point— Kelly’s execution date was canceled and he was granted a sanity hearing, which I also covered for the Weekly. The hearing took place in Marin. Sue sent me up there and urged me to stay until the proceedings—which dragged on for several weeks-- were done. Though the jury found Kelly sane for execution, through the vagaries of the court system, his life was spared. He is alive on death row to this day.
I can’t say with any certainty what role my work played, but that first big feature was the story all the other reporters who showed up for the sanity trial carried with them, and when Ted Koppel addressed the case on Nightline, as part of a discussion on execution of people with mental illness, he held up a copy of the LA Weekly article to illustrate his point.
In the end I filed six stories about Kelly, a series which shed at least some small light on the complexities of capital punishment in California. It was (and is) a thorny and difficult topic that everyone needs to know about. LA County has more people on death row than anywhere else in America, some since before the LA Weekly was founded. But it's an issue that was (and is) of little interest to most people. Still, Sue didn’t hesitate to run every single piece. That dedication, that commitment to work that was valuable and meaningful -- advertisers be damned -- made working at the Weekly a reporter’s dream.