Trevor McDonald opens up on new death row prison documentary

After interviewing Saddam Hussein, entering the secret world of the Mafia and reporting from war zones, you'd think nothing would shock Sir Trevor McDonald.
Trevor McDonald. Picture: PATrevor McDonald. Picture: PA
Trevor McDonald. Picture: PA

And yet, upon returning to Indiana State Prison’s death row for his latest documentary, that was far from the case.

“I found the place more awful this time,” he says. “The prison was on lockdown, for five weeks.

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“The concomitant of all that is the place is very grubby, and dirty and they’re shouting and screaming because they don’t want to be locked in for 24 hours a day.

“I did leave there desperately needing a drink,” he admits, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood slightly.

It’s five years since the news veteran first visited the maximum-security facility, one of America’s most dangerous.

The follow-up, ITV’s Death Row 2018 With Trevor McDonald, sees him talk to both new arrivals at the prison, and some familiar faces.

“I couldn’t get these people quite out of my mind,” Sir Trevor says when asked why he wanted to go back.

“I think this is probably my last visit. They’re getting on, and I’m getting on, and another five years, a lot of them wouldn’t be there.”

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The programme shows how the future of the death penalty in the state of Indiana remains uncertain.

While there have been no executions at the prison since Sir Trevor last visited, he arrives to find a new death chamber has been built.

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But, the Trinidad and Tobago-born presenter explains, the Europeans have stopped supplying the “killer drugs” needed for the executions – and so the prisoners are just left awaiting their fate.

It’s clear how much meeting these men has impacted Sir Trevor, especially as he discusses the plight of one inmate, Paul McManus, at great length.

Once sentenced to death for killing his wife and children, McManus has now been given life without parole, and so must spend the rest of his life inside.

“Before, although he didn’t particularly want to die, he knew that he would, at some stage,” says Sir Trevor. “So, adjusting his mind to that difference was becoming a great psychological problem.

“We talked on a nice sunny day, and you could see the barbed-wire fences all around, and he was looking and thinking, ‘Is this where I’m going to spend the rest of my life?’ And he’s not 50 yet.

“That’s a new kind of storyline for us really, and a new take on the last adventure.”

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While all the inmates’ stories are shocking, William Gibson is a particularly memorable face featured in the hour-long documentary.

Convicted of killing and mutilating three women, he had never spoken publicly about his crimes before.

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And, during his interview, he gloats that there might yet be more victims to be found.

How did Sir Trevor feel listening to him talk so candidly?

“I mean, dirty,” he says. “Somebody boasting about killing people like that and saying, ‘I may have killed even more’, it’s out of my mental range.”

It seems there’s a real hunger for programmes about crimes and prisons, particularly American ones, in the UK.

Asked why, Sir Trevor, who has three grown-up children and lives with his wife in London, says: “Some of these people are just off the scale, and I think we get fascinated by the lives of these people. And we keep trying to find out why, why, why do they do this?”

The affable Sir Trevor has never shied away from asking difficult questions, having conducted some of the highest profile television interviews of all time – including Nelson Mandela days after his release from prison.

His career, which started in the West Indies, before moving to the UK in 1969, has spanned over 50 years – he became ITN’s first black reporter in 1973 and later, was made the first sole reporter of News At Ten.

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And on the topic of the ever-changing world of journalism, the award-winning broadcaster says: “I would be a little bit more bold about fake news.

“Sometimes fake news is something which is said about somebody which they don’t like, and so they call it fake news... We used to call it propaganda or misinformation in my day.”

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But, having stepped down from News At Ten in 2008, he admits the issues his colleagues have to deal with are a “little more complex these days”.

“And the other thing is, I wouldn’t go to Syria,” he adds. “I was in the Middle East, and I went to Beirut... I would not go to Aleppo today. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve got older, and, I hope, a little wiser.”

Death Row 2018 With Trevor McDonald is on STV on Thursday, 9pm