NPR obtained secret tapes recorded by prison staff during Virginia executions Four tapes mysteriously donated to a library reveal uncertainty behind the scenes of the death chamber — and indicate the prison neglected to record evidence during an execution gone wrong.

NPR uncovered secret execution tapes from Virginia. More remain hidden

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When legal executions are carried out in the U.S., the few members of the public who are allowed to attend are forbidden to tape or photograph what they witness. But NPR investigative reporter Chiara Eisner obtained audio that was taped behind the scenes during four executions from the point of view of prison staff. Just a warning - we're going to play some of that audio from those executions, which some listeners might find disturbing.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: Thirty-five years ago in Virginia, just minutes before a man was scheduled to die by electrocution, employees at the prison started taping what they were seeing. What you're about to hear next are moments drawn from that tape.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Have you got the recorder on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, it's on. Go.

EISNER: This is the first time any part of that audio has been played for the public.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The inmate is being removed from his cell, being led to the chamber. The inmate is now strapped into the chair. The first charge has been applied.

EISNER: These kinds of recordings are typically closely guarded by the government. I didn't get these from the prison, though. I found them in the Library of Virginia. But even there, the records have been kept hidden for more than a decade. Roger Christman is one of the state archivists.

ROGER CHRISTMAN: So we have erroneously restricted them.

EISNER: So the tapes were restricted until I asked for them.

CHRISTMAN: Essentially, yes. We were following the 50-year guideline that the Department of Corrections had put on the earlier execution files we had here.

EISNER: There's a law in Virginia that says the Department of Corrections can restrict files about executions for 50 years after the prisoner dies. The library originally thought that law applied to them, too. After I argued that law shouldn't apply, the archivists gave me the tapes. But the story of how the audio arrived at the library in the first place really starts in the house of an 82-year-old man named R.M. Oliver.

CHRISTMAN: As I recall, he contacted us and said he had some Department of Corrections material, and could we come and take a look at it.

EISNER: Interesting - so y'all went to his house to pick up the files.

CHRISTMAN: We went to his house. And when we got there, he brought out this nice, brown suitcase, essentially, and said, this is what I have to donate.

EISNER: Oliver said he felt the tapes were important when he donated them in 2006. And he was right. Not only do they explain step by step how executions were carried out in Virginia, they provide a rare glimpse into the relationships between the prisoners and the workers who are executing them. Alton Waye's last words were captured on this tape just minutes before he was executed.


ALTON WAYE: I would like to express...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'd like to express what is about to be taken here is a murder. Did you get that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah. I'm trying to get it. I would like to express that what is about to take place here is a murder, and something about he doesn't hold that against anyone. And he loves everyone.

EISNER: What Waye actually said was that he forgave everyone who was involved with his murder.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Key placed in proper position. Warden nod. Execution is taking place.

EISNER: How had records this important ended up outside prison walls, in somebody's briefcase? Roger said he had asked that question to the donor, R.M. Oliver.

CHRISTMAN: He said he used to work at the Department of Corrections.

EISNER: Oliver had been the agency's director at one time, but he had left that position more than a decade before any of the four executions took place. Since Oliver passed away years ago, I visited his son, Stephen. It was pouring outside as we ran for cover into his house in Richmond.

STEPHEN OLIVER: Sorry the house is a mess.

EISNER: Oh, no, we're sorry we're a little late.

OLIVER: We got you all set up in the kitchen, so...

EISNER: Thank you.

I showed the original briefcase to Stephen. The archivist, Roger, had kept the bag that had carried the tapes all this time in his office and had given me permission to take it from the library. Does this look like something your dad would have?

OLIVER: I don't even remember seeing that briefcase. He may have had it hidden in a closet somewhere. Dad kept it a secret from us.

EISNER: There were certainly reasons people may have wanted to keep the tapes secret. One of them indicated that staff were unprepared to handle one of the most important calls that can be made during an execution.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We need to get 306 clear. The governor's office is calling.

EISNER: The governor is the only person with the power to save the prisoner's life, even at that final moment.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Debbie, they're strapping him in the chair. Hold on a minute.

EISNER: For more than two minutes, they struggled to connect the phone call from the governor as the prisoner sat strapped to the electric chair, just waiting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Hang that line - hang it up. Tell him we'll call him back.


EISNER: Boggs ended up being executed. The governor hadn't wanted to save his life. Had he felt differently, though, Virginia could have come close to executing a man the governor had pardoned. But the last tape in the briefcase revealed an even more serious oversight. The state may have tried to cover up key parts of the execution of a Black man named Wilbert Lee Evans.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: The team is continuing to strap Evans into the chair. It's now 11 o'clock.

EISNER: What happened next on the tape sounds very different from what reporters who witnessed the execution said they observed. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that, after the first volt of electricity hit Evans, he started bleeding from his face.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's 11:04. The first surge of electricity has been administered.

EISNER: A reporter from the Alexandria Journal said it was then that the blood started bubbling down his belly and onto his shirt. But there's no mention of any of that on the recording.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's 11:05 - second surge of electricity has been administered.

EISNER: Even after that, she still didn't say anything. If the local journalists hadn't reported what happened, the prison's official tape would have made it seem like Evans' face hadn't bled at all.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It is 11:09. The inmate has expired.

EISNER: I asked the Department of Corrections whether they had any more execution tapes, and they said that they did. They had seven, but they refused to provide any of those. They also declined an interview to talk to me about why. Ian Kalish is an attorney who teaches at the University of Virginia's law school.

IAN KALISH: I think that these types of records are really key to facilitating public oversight and, you know, holding public bodies and, you know, government actors accountable.

EISNER: Virginia executed more people in its history than any other state in America before it abolished the death penalty in 2021. Kalish believes the public deserves to know what happened in its death chamber.

KALISH: It's very concerning to me that, you know, this type of information is being withheld.

EISNER: Today, most executions across the U.S. are carried out by lethal injection, but execution workers still made mistakes during more than a third of the ones that were attempted last year. Blaire Andres leads the U.S. death penalty case work for a nonprofit called Reprieve that advocates against lethal injection.

BLAIRE ANDRES: States have increasingly resorted to secrecy in the execution process.

EISNER: Last year, Alabama took more than three hours to execute Joe Nathan James Jr. The staff said nothing out of the ordinary happened, but Reprieve helped arrange an autopsy of his body. It showed multiple bruises and puncture wounds. I reached out to the Alabama Department of Corrections for comment on the autopsy results, and they didn't reply. Blaire says the state's lack of transparency is suspicious.

ANDRES: If the state is doing everything correctly, then they shouldn't have anything to hide. So it does raise the question - what is the state trying to cover up?

EISNER: That's also a question in Virginia. As long as the Department of Corrections refuses to release the rest of the execution tapes, the public won't know the answer. Chiara Eisner, NPR News, Richmond.


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