The executioner's song

The nation for the first time got to hear the executioner's side of a working death chamber last week when excerpts from 23 electrocutions taped by the State of Georgia aired on public radio and on ABC Nightline.

Public Radio Special Report: The Execution Tapes
ran on WNYC-AM-FM New York, which co-produced it, and on other public stations around the country. ABC advanced the Nightline program on World News Tonight.

Listeners heard some muffled audio from the chamber but mostly the voice of a prison official describing the executions in detached and unemotional commentary to state officials connected by phone—including an apparently botched electrocution that had to be performed twice before the prisoner died.

"This is not a decision we made lightly," said Laura Walker, president of WNYC Radio. "We were concerned that the tapes might be sensational. We wanted to make sure we would be providing context and provoke a discussion."

"That they showed the procedure to be clinical, methodical, that's what appealed to us," said Nightline
producer Richard Harris. "There are people who would take comfort in how calm, clinical—almost banal—these tapes are. Critics of the death penalty would look at the tape in which it took two procedures to electrocute the prisoner. Anybody who wants to use these tapes on either side can do so."

Documentary producer David Isay found the tapes when he read that Georgia criminal defense attorney Mike Mears had subpoenaed them for his constitutional challenge to Georgia's use of the electric chair. The state has changed its method of execution to lethal injection, though only for murders committed after May 2000.

Public executions have been nonexistent since the 1930s, and taped executions are a rarity. A videotape of the 1992 execution of double-murderer Robert Alton Harris was made for the American Civil Liberties Union but never shown; KQED-TV sued the State of California in 1994 to allow it to televise the tape, but a court ordered it destroyed.

Despite its airing of the Georgia tapes, Nightline
would not necessarily show the Timothy McVeigh execution even were it available. Says producer Harris: "Some of these tapes were made 17 years ago. McVeigh is a fresh wound."