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Exposing secret audio tapes "A live execution is the only window"

A 1989 audio recording crackling with static, a prisoner can barely be heard as he offers his last words before being executed in Virginia’s electric chair.

“I want to reveal what’s going to happen … it’s a murder,” Alton Way – who was convicted of raping and murdering a 61-year-old woman – is heard saying, before a prison employee clumsily tries to capture what Way is on tape. To repeat what he said.

“And he forgives the people involved in this murder. And I don’t hate anybody and I love them,” the employee said.

The recording of Way’s execution, which was recently published by NPR, is one of at least 35 audio tapes in the possession of the Virginia Department of Corrections between 1987 and 2017, the department recently confirmed.

The Way recording offers a rare public glimpse of an execution, a public proceeding often shrouded in secrecy and witnessed by a select few, including prison officials, victims, family members and journalists. Even those allowed to testify are often prevented from watching or listening to the entire execution process.

Execution tape

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, looks into the electric chair in the death chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrett, Va., where Operations Director George Hinkle, center, and Department of Corrections Harold Clark, right, sign a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty. March 24, 2021.

Steve Helber/AP

But the department has no plans to allow more recordings to be released to the public.

The Associated Press sought the Virginia audio tapes under the state’s open records law while NPR recently reported on the existence of four execution recordings, including the Way tapes, which have long been held by the Library of Virginia.

But shortly after NPR’s story aired, the Department of Corrections asked for the tapes back, and the library complied. The department then denied the AP’s request for copies of all execution recordings in its possession, citing security concerns, exemptions to the Records Act covering personal health records and personnel information.

Several death penalty experts say the four recordings in Virginia and 23 other execution tapes in Georgia released two decades ago are believed to be the only public recordings of executions in the United States.

Richard Dieter, acting interim director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that tracks executions and has been highly criticized, said he would not be surprised if some other states secretly recorded executions “just to protect themselves” against prosecution. .

“States are wary of doing the right thing and being challenged in court, and want to get their evidence,” Dieter said.

“So secretive that I don’t know if they had tapes like that they would want to release,” he said.

A 2018 report by the center found that of the 17 states that carried out a total of 246 lethal-injection executions between January 2011 and August 2018, 14 states prevented witnesses from seeing at least part of the execution, while 15 states prevented witnesses from hearing what went on inside the execution chamber. was happening

Virginia, long one of the nation’s busiest execution states, Ending the death penalty in 2021, becoming the first state in the former Confederacy to do so In Virginia’s 400-year history, the commonwealth has executed more than 1,300 people — more than any other state.

Lawmakers have defeated legislative efforts to bring it back for some crimes. But researchers and transparency advocates said the department’s decision to withhold the tapes raised concerns and would limit its ability to verify or research previous executions.

The tapes found in NPR’s investigation were donated to the library in 2006 by a now-deceased former Department of Corrections employee named RM Oliver, the library said in a statement to the AP.

NPR reported that how Oliver ended up with the tapes and why he donated them remains a mystery.

The files that ended up in the library were taken “without the knowledge or permission of the DOC,” said Carla Lemons, a DOC spokeswoman. The department wanted them back “so we can properly maintain them with other execution files in the agency’s possession,” Lemons wrote in an email.

The library said it agreed after consulting its legal counsel.

Lemons said the DOC typically holds on to an execution for at least 50 years after it is executed. He defended the department’s decision to withhold the records.

“While the Department may have discretion to release certain materials contained in execution files, VDOC respects the privacy interests of current and former VDOC employees, victims and inmates and, therefore, chooses not to publicly release these sensitive materials,” he wrote.

Dale Brumfield, an author, journalist and death penalty opponent who has written a book about the death penalty and its abolition in Virginia, said he obtained the four tapes NPRO covered from the library last year after an initial request years ago was denied.

Broomfield said he thinks the value of the tapes to the average listener is minimal, though he said they offer insight compared to other records and news accounts.

NPR cited accounts from three local reporters who witnessed the 1990 execution of Wilbert Lee Evans — who was convicted of murdering a sheriff’s deputy — and said that after the administration of the first jolt of electricity from the electric chair, Evans’ eyes began to bleed. , mouth and nose.

But the execution tapes did not record those details. The DOC employee who described the recording did not mention any evidence of blood.

Brumfield said state law has prohibited photography and video shooting during executions since the early 20th century.

“This is the only window into a live execution we’ve ever done,” Broomfield said of the tapes.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the exemptions cited by the DOC to deny the AP’s request to release the tapes follow the pattern of many law enforcement, judicial and corrections agencies.

“There’s a tendency to hold back on everything or have a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

“It takes everything off the table, and the public and lawyers and lawmakers are left in the dark trying to figure out what’s the best way to operate our justice system,” he said.

Dieter said that after a spate of executions in recent years, some states that allow the death penalty have passed new privacy laws that prevent the public from getting information about executions. He said he was in favor of releasing the recordings.

“The execution is done … you just don’t know what’s going on, and it’s a matter of life and death,” Dieter said.

An audio tape obtained by NPR revealed the dramatic moments before Richard Boggs was electrocuted in 1990. Prison staff can be heard trying in vain to connect a call from then Govt. L. Douglas Wilder — who had the power to overturn the death penalty at the last minute.

“Debbie, they tied him to the chair!” A woman can be heard saying, according to audio obtained by NPR.

The staff was apparently unable to connect the call and Boggs was eventually executed. It turns out that Wilder is not calling for the death penalty to be abolished.

“But if Wilder had felt differently — and if staff hadn’t connected him in time — Virginia could have come close to executing a pardoned man,” NPR reported.

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