Excerpts from a Public Radio Special: The Execution Tapes
May 5, 2001
BOB GARFIELD: This week, for the first time in this country, an entire execution was broadcast. It was part of a program called The Execution Tapes: A Public Radio Special Report, a joint production of WNYC which produces this program and the independent radio production company Sound Portraits. The program included reports, panel discussions and a national call in, but the centerpiece was the broadcast of the execution of Ivon Ray Stanley, recorded in 1984 by the Georgia Department of Corrections. The broadcast was, needless to say, controversial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Given WNYC's role and my own involvement -- I produced two reports for the special -- there is no end to the conflicts of interest inherent in our attempt to grapple with the controversy. Nevertheless we are devoting the first part of this hour to doing just that.
BOB GARFIELD:We begin with an excerpt of one of Brook's reports with some history of the debate and how public radio came to acquire and broadcast the execution tapes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There was a time in America when attending a public execution was both possible and popular. The last time was in Kentucky in the summer of 1936 when thousands of spectators gathered for the hanging of young Rainey Bethea, convicted of rape. Newspapers said it was a boisterous affair. History tells us that's often so. The unseemly celebrations may have been part of the reason executions were taken behind closed doors. The states do allow for witnesses, including reporters, but no cameras, no tape recorders. The rules are challenged from time to time, most recently in California, but most judges accept the argument that cameras and broadcasts would expose the prison staff to the risk of retaliation and increase the likelihood of riots. And so until this week there had been no broadcasts of executions, live or on tape.
TERRY THORNTON: The presence of the camera would be a severe disruptive impact on the prison population and that is definitely a safety and security issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Terry Thornton represents the California Department of Corrections.
TERRY THORNTON:The courts have traditionally, when they rule in this sort of thing, they-- oh, how shall I say this? -- they realize that prison officials know more about how to manage and operate prisons than the courts do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Outside the court the public is similarly disinclined toward cameras.
JANE KIRTLEY:My perception based on people I've talked to and radio shows I've done is that people who are against the death penalty tend to also be against broadcasting it. People who are for the death penalty also tend to be against broadcasting it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Jane Kirtley is a specialist in First Amendment law and journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. She holds the minority view that freedom of information should prevail, especially with respect to the death penalty.
JANE KIRTLEY: People have asked me what do you think would be the consequence if we broadcast this, and my answer is that I have no idea. I don't know which way the pendulum would swing. All I know is that if we were able to broadcast executions, people in making those judgments would be much more informed in doing so, and I can't see how that's a bad thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Michael Mears is an Atlanta lawyer. In 1998 he was in the middle of a long campaign to challenge the constitutionality of the electric chair when he learned through some case files that the State of Georgia had been taping its executions for 15 years. He got the tapes and used them as evidence in his suit.
MICHAEL MEARS: We found that it, it's a, a very bureaucratic process. They wanted documentation that they had crossed all of their t's and dotted all their i's, and so the audiotapes were used for that purpose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A small story that mentioned Mears on the tapes was noticed by a radio producer in New York.
DAVID ISAY:I couldn't believe it. It seemed like it would have been a mistake, but we made a phone call down to Georgia to this attorney, and indeed he had tapes of every execution in Georgia. I was completely-- I was, I was blown away. I couldn't believe that these things existed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's David Isay who's responsible for the broadcast of the execution tapes; 6 months ago he produced a documentary called Witness to an Execution, conversations with people who had participated in or been present at dozens of executions in Texas. He got the tapes from Michael Mears and listened to them. Isay decided that in any program about the tapes, one full execution must be broadcast. He selected the execution of Ivon Ray Stanley on July 12th, 1984. Isay chose that tape because it was one of the earliest recorded and so was more descriptive. Also Stanley's execution was not unusual. There were no mistakes or malfunctions. Stanley's was a typical execution, as executions go.
DAVID ISAY: That's one of the extraordinary parts of this story because when we dug into this completely random case we found out that there were a of interesting facts about the case; one was that Stanley was retarded. He had an I.Q. of 62. The other was that the murder that Stanley was involved in which was a horrendous murder of an insurance agent in a small town in Georgia was actually carried out by two men, Stanley and his partner, a guy named Joseph Thomas, and Stanley claimed he was a bystander. He was involved in the robbery but he didn't commit the murder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The entire execution of Ivon Ray Stanley is documented on this tape, including the parts most witnesses never get to see -- the moments for example when the prisoner is led into the chamber and strapped into the chair. Usually witnesses file into the observation room after the prisoner is confined to the chair or to the gurney. A curtain opens, and they see only the moment of death. And then the curtain closes. David Isay.
DAVID ISAY: This is the only opportunity the American public will ever have to see everything that happens from start to finish in an execution. It's never going to happen again. This is a curtainless document, and that's part of what makes it so extraordinary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Isay maintains that he hasn't put this tape before the public to provoke a particular response about capital punishment, and it's possible that it'll change no one's mind one way or the other. Certainly many people, even those who hold the same views on the death penalty, will hear the tape very differently. Wendy Lesser is the author of Pictures at an Execution. She doesn't want to hear the tapes, and she doesn't think anybody should. In fact, she believes they only obscure the human drama that actually took place. Much better, she says, to let a reporter tell the story than to hear it described moment by moment as on the Georgia tapes.
WENDY LESSER: If you go through a reporter you always get the human element, even reporters that are in favor of the death penalty when they witness somebody being executed, they include some sense of shame and pain and difficulty at being present at this event.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Producer David Isay.
DAVID ISAY:There's something about -- the, the soul of a person is in their voice, and there are certain stories that are very well told on, on the page, but you're one degree distant, and with these tapes you're one degree closer. So I think it's much more immediate and, and much more powerful to actually hear the voices than to hear them distilled through a reporter's pen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The tape is a neutral document. Individual listeners will have to determine for themselves if they are hearing a soul or soullessness, closure or just another crime, justice or revenge or all these things at once. All that is known for certain is that this is how it happened.