Lester Holt started thinking about crime and punishment in 1995 after serving as a media witness to the execution of George Del Vecchio.
“There was something about that night,” Holt recently recalled, while seated in his fourth-floor office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan. “It was after midnight, and we’re in this cold brick building. There was a curtain. The curtain opened up and the warden was wearing a headset, and then he said – Holt tilted his slim 6-foot-2 frame forward and lowered his already low newscaster baritone – “‘Proceed.’”
At the time, Holt was an anchor at the local CBS affiliate in Chicago. “I wanted to stand up and go, ‘Wait a second, we’re going to kill a guy?’ “
It wasn’t, Holt was quick to point out, that the experience caused him to oppose the death penalty. He had no great sympathy for Del Vecchio, who had killed a boy and raped the boy’s mother. Holt simply wondered, after the curtain opened and the injection was given, whether Del Vecchio’s death made the world any safer.
But that was the mid-1990s, when the 1994 federal crime bill stiffened sentencing requirements and contributed to what is now call mass incarceration. “(Criminal justice) wasn’t a proper thing to talk about,” Holt said. “It was not something that I covered much after that for many years.”
But time has caught up with the issue, and Holt’s question is freshly relevant. It feels like a story he has been waiting all this time to cover.
And, he’s primed to do it from one of the most powerful chairs in the news business as the anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News.” “Now,” Holt said, “it is very popular to talk about these things.”
But he is mostly recognized for his staid and steady demeanor and describes his style as “respectful and respectfully persistent.” He persisted his way into getting President Donald Trump to admit in 2017 that “this Russia thing with Trump” was on his mind when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey.
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