The last public execution in the United States occurred on August 14, 1936, when Rainey Bethea, a 22 year-old man, was hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky for the rape of Lischia Edwards, an elderly woman.1See, e.g., Mark Murrmann, 20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago, Mother Jones (Aug. 14, 2014), [Hover for full URL]. It is worth noting that Bethea also confessed to murdering Edwards, but was charged only with her rape. Id. “Unlike a murder conviction, which would have carried a maximum sentence of death by electrocution at the [Kentucky State Penitentiary], a rape conviction [provided] for the convicted to be publicly hanged in the county where the crime occurred.Id. It is also worth noting that on May 21, 1937, Roscoe Jackson was hanged in Galena, Missouri, with approximately 500 people watching. Because some of those people paid a fee to view the execution, however, I’m not willing to classify it as a “public execution,” though I can’t say I’m terribly invested in how this particular historical question is resolved (i.e., whether we’re talking about 1936 or 1937). Since then, all executions throughout the United States have been carried out solely before witnesses selected, or otherwise approved, by the state pursuant to its laws.3See The Execution Tapes: Recorded in Jackson, Georgia, Sound Portraits (Undated; last visited June 14, 2015), [Hover for full URL]. Such witnesses have historically included members of the news media, and while many a reporter has attempted to bring cameras or tape recorders into the witness room, no state has ever allowed them to do so.4Id. Indeed, “courts have consistently ruled that, although the media do have a place in witnessing executions, they have no right to record the scene.” Id. (Nor does any other witness possess such a right.) As a result, with the exception of these few witnesses, no member of the public in recent history has been able to personally experience the scene of an execution in any kind of contemporaneous,2By “contemporaneous,” I do not mean literally experiencing it at the exact same moment in time the execution took place, but rather, experiencing it after-the-fact via some sort of simultaneously-made audio and/or visual recording. sensory manner. They would have to, for example, read a journalist’s account in a newspaper, or perhaps hear a current or former warden or member of a prison execution team describe the execution procedure generally in an interview, or something similarly indirect.

All of that changed in 1998.

It turns out that between 1983 and 1996, members of the Georgia Department of Corrections had created (for their own records) audio recordings of 22 electrocutions conducted at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, located near Jackson.5Scott Stallings, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, “said the tape recordings were not intended to be secret, and were started ‘to cover all the bases from a legal standpoint.'” Sara Rimer, Sounds of the Georgia Death Chamber Will Be Heard on Public Radio, The New York Times (May 2, 2001), [Hover for full URL]. Personally, I think this decision was a wise and prudent one. Criminal defense attorney Mike Mears, who was litigating a case challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s use of the electric chair, subpoenaed the tapes.6Mears did not discover their existence; rather, according to The New York Times, “excerpts from some of the tapes had been played by other radio stations in the mid-1990’s.” Id. David Isay, documentary radio producer and founder of Sound Portraits Productions,7”Sound Portraits Productions was the predecessor to the national oral-history project, StoryCorps. [It] is no longer an active organization . . . .” About Sound Portraits, Sound Portraits (Undated; last visited June 15, 2015), [Hover for full URL]. obtained the recordings from Mears, and from them produced The Execution Tapes, an hour-long public radio special. It was the first time a national audience was able to hear what takes place during a state-sponsored execution.8See The Execution Tapes, supra note 2.

As Isay explained to The New York Times, his intent with the project was to inform, not to persuade: “‘Executions are an act of government that has been completely hidden from the public,’ [he said]. ‘I wanted to shine a light on this process so people could understand what an execution is. This isn’t meant to be pro- or anti-death penalty. It’s just what it is.'”9Rimer, supra note 5. These tapes remain the only live recordings of executions in the United States that are known to exist (at least publicly).10A judge ordered the filming of the execution of Robert Alton Harris (put to death in California in 1992) to provide evidence for future constitutional challenges to the gas chamber, but several months later ordered the tape destroyed. See id.

While Isay had posted digital recordings of all of the tapes to the Sound Portraits website, at some point they became unavailable. (I have reached out to Isay to inquire as to the reason, but have not received any response.) Fortunately, I had downloaded and archived many of the audio files before this occurred, and I have decided to post the files I do have because they are rare, historically significant, and quite fascinating.

On the Sound Portraits website, the following description accompanies the audio files:

“These . . . files are transfers of the raw, unedited tapes. Some of the tapes begin after the execution has started or end before the procedure has been completed. Any gaps in the files exist on the original tapes themselves.

The Georgia Department of Corrections recorded the executions from three locations:

  • Command Post. The most complete recording of each execution is the taped telephone conversation between department of corrections officials in Atlanta and the prison personnel in a room adjacent to the death chamber. These recordings, which often document the arrival of the witnesses and the removal of the body, are the most descriptive of the execution procedure.
  • Death chamber. Recordings from the death chamber capture the warden swearing in witnesses, reading the death warrant, affording the condemned a chance to add to his last words, and pronouncing death. The electrocution itself is not recorded.
  • Inmate’s cell. Recordings from the inmate’s cell are made two hours prior to the scheduled execution. Here, the inmate is given the opportunity to make a final statement with no time limitation.”11Complete Audio of the Execution Tapes, Sound Portraits (Undated; last visited June 15, 2015), [Hover for full URL]. The files on the website were in RealAudio (.rm) format — which, at that time, was a much more common format than it is today. (There are very few applications that can even read RealAudio files now.) Accordingly, I have converted each of the files to MP3 (.mp3) format. I have also enhanced the audio where possible so as to reduce much of the noise, hum, etc., but did not otherwise edit any of the files.

Georgia Execution Tapes — Recordings Available
(All recordings marked as “Yes” are contained in the playlist for the audio player below this table. To begin playing a recording, just click/tap on the item in the playlist that you wish to hear.)

Inmate's Name

Execution Date

Cell

Command

Chamber

John Eldon Smith

Dec. 15, 1983

No

No

Yes

Ivon Ray Stanley

July 12, 1984

No

Yes

No

Alpha Otis Stephens

Dec. 12, 1984

No

Yes

Yes

Roosevelt Green

Jan. 9, 1985

No

Yes

No

Van Roosevelt Solomon

Feb. 20, 1985

Yes

Yes

Yes

John Young

Mar. 20, 1985

Yes

No

Yes

Jerome Bowden

June 25, 1986

Yes

No

Yes

Joseph Mulligan

May 15, 1987

Yes

Yes

Yes

Richard Tucker

May 22, 1987

Yes

Yes

Yes

William Boyd Tucker

May 29, 1987

No

Yes

No

Timothy McCorquodale

Oct. 21, 1987

Yes

Yes

No

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. See, e.g., Mark Murrmann, 20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago, Mother Jones (Aug. 14, 2014), [Hover for full URL]. It is worth noting that Bethea also confessed to murdering Edwards, but was charged only with her rape. Id. “Unlike a murder conviction, which would have carried a maximum sentence of death by electrocution at the [Kentucky State Penitentiary], a rape conviction [provided] for the convicted to be publicly hanged in the county where the crime occurred.Id. It is also worth noting that on May 21, 1937, Roscoe Jackson was hanged in Galena, Missouri, with approximately 500 people watching. Because some of those people paid a fee to view the execution, however, I’m not willing to classify it as a “public execution,” though I can’t say I’m terribly invested in how this particular historical question is resolved (i.e., whether we’re talking about 1936 or 1937).
2. By “contemporaneous,” I do not mean literally experiencing it at the exact same moment in time the execution took place, but rather, experiencing it after-the-fact via some sort of simultaneously-made audio and/or visual recording.
3. See The Execution Tapes: Recorded in Jackson, Georgia, Sound Portraits (Undated; last visited June 14, 2015), [Hover for full URL].
4. Id. Indeed, “courts have consistently ruled that, although the media do have a place in witnessing executions, they have no right to record the scene.” Id. (Nor does any other witness possess such a right.)
5. Scott Stallings, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, “said the tape recordings were not intended to be secret, and were started ‘to cover all the bases from a legal standpoint.'” Sara Rimer, Sounds of the Georgia Death Chamber Will Be Heard on Public Radio, The New York Times (May 2, 2001), [Hover for full URL]. Personally, I think this decision was a wise and prudent one.
6. Mears did not discover their existence; rather, according to The New York Times, “excerpts from some of the tapes had been played by other radio stations in the mid-1990’s.” Id.
7. ”Sound Portraits Productions was the predecessor to the national oral-history project, StoryCorps. [It] is no longer an active organization . . . .” About Sound Portraits, Sound Portraits (Undated; last visited June 15, 2015), [Hover for full URL].
8. See The Execution Tapes, supra note 2.
9. Rimer, supra note 5.
10. A judge ordered the filming of the execution of Robert Alton Harris (put to death in California in 1992) to provide evidence for future constitutional challenges to the gas chamber, but several months later ordered the tape destroyed. See id.
11. Complete Audio of the Execution Tapes, Sound Portraits (Undated; last visited June 15, 2015), [Hover for full URL]. The files on the website were in RealAudio (.rm) format — which, at that time, was a much more common format than it is today. (There are very few applications that can even read RealAudio files now.) Accordingly, I have converted each of the files to MP3 (.mp3) format. I have also enhanced the audio where possible so as to reduce much of the noise, hum, etc., but did not otherwise edit any of the files.
Click to Follow This Post (receive an e-mail if this post is updated)
X

Click to Follow This Post (receive an e-mail if this post is updated)

E-mail :
(Note: You will be prompted to enter your e-mail address. After doing so, you will receive a verification e-mail, which you must confirm in order to be subscribed to this post.)