On a 1989 audio recording, an inmate is barely audible as he offers his last words before he is executed in Virginia’s electric chair. “I would like to express that what is about to take place ... is a murder,” said Alton Waye — who was convicted of raping and murdering a 61-year-old woman before a prison employee clumsily tries to repeat what Waye said into a tape recorder. “And that he forgives the people who’s involved in this murder. And that I don’t hate nobody and that I love them,” the employee says, the Associated Press reports. The recording of Waye’s execution, which was published by NPR, is one of at least 35 tapes held by the Virginia Department of Corrections documenting executions between 1987 and 2017. The recording offers a rare public glimpse into an execution, a government proceeding often shrouded in secrecy and only witnessed by a select few, including prison officials, victims, family members and journalists. Even those who are allowed to witness are often prevented from seeing or hearing the entire execution process.
The department has no plans to allow more recordings to be released to the public. AP sought the Virginia audio tapes from the Library of Virginia under the state’s open records law. After NPR aired its story, the Department of Corrections asked for the tapes back and the library complied. The department rejected the AP’s request for copies of all of the execution recordings in its possession, citing exemptions to records law covering security concerns, private health records and personnel information. Death penalty experts said the four recordings in Virginia and 23 Georgia execution tapes released two decades ago are believed to be the only publicly available recordings of U.S. executions. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes capital punishment, said he would not be surprised if other states have secretly recorded executions “just to protect themselves” against lawsuits. “States are wary of things being done right and being challenged in court, and want to have their evidence,” Dieter 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 was happening inside the execution chamber.