An inmate convicted of raping and murdering a 61-year-old woman named Alton Waye offered his last words before being executed in Virginia’s electric chair in 1989.
The recording of his execution was recently published by NPR and is one of at least 35 audio tapes in the possession of the Virginia Department of Corrections documenting executions between 1987 and 2017.
The Waye recording offers a rare public glimpse into an execution, which is often shrouded in secrecy and only witnessed by a select few.
The department has no plans to allow more recordings to be released to the public.
The Associated Press sought the Virginia audio tapes under the state’s open records law after NPR recently reported on the existence of four execution recordings, including the Waye tape, that had long been in the possession of the Library of Virginia.
But shortly after NPR aired its story, the Department of Corrections asked for the tapes back, and the library complied.
The department then 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.
Richard Dieter, the acting interim director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks and has been highly critical of capital punishment, said he would not be surprised if some other states have secretly recorded executions “just to protect themselves” against lawsuits.
Virginia ended capital punishment in 2021, becoming the first state of the former Confederacy to do so.
But researchers and transparency advocates said the department’s decision to withhold the tapes raised concerns and would limit the ability to scrutinize or research previous executions.
Dale Brumfield, an author, journalist, and death penalty opponent who has written a book about capital punishment and its abolition in Virginia, said he also received the four tapes NPR covered last year from the library after an initial request was rejected years earlier.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said that the exemptions cited by DOC in its denial of AP’s request to release the tapes follow the pattern of many law enforcement, judicial, and corrections agencies.
Dieter said that following a string of bungled executions in recent years, some states that allow the death penalty have passed new secrecy laws that prevent the public from obtaining information about executions. He said he favors releasing the recordings.
One audio tape obtained by NPR revealed dramatic moments unfolding before the electrocution of Richard Boggs in 1990.
Staff were apparently unable to connect a call from then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who had the authority to cancel an execution at the last moment.
If Wilder had felt differently, and had the staff not been able to connect him in time, Virginia could have come close to carrying out the execution of a pardoned man.