RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Four audio tapes of executions carried out by Virginia’s Department of Corrections (VDOC) are believed to be among the only recordings of capital punishment available to the public in the United States.
However, on Jan. 27, according to a Library of Virginia spokesperson, the audio recordings were returned to the VDOC upon request.
“A former Department of Corrections employee named R.M. Oliver donated the tapes to the Library of Virginia (LVA) in 2006,” Marketing and Communications Director Angela Flagg said in an email to 8News. “The Library received four tapes in this donation.”
According to the Associated Press, though, there are at least 35 audio recordings of executions carried out by the VDOC between 1987 and 2017, subsequent legal information requests for which have been denied.
But while four of the audio tapes were publicly available through the Library of Virginia, local author Dale Brumfield said he was able to listen to them.
“The tapes, actually, have been hidden in plain sight,” he told 8News on Tuesday. “There’s nothing grotesque or violent about them. I would describe them, as an abolitionist point of view, as the banality of evil, because they’re just plain, emotionless recounting of a person being killed.”
The four audio recordings in question documented the executions of Richard Whitley (1987), Alton Waye (1989), Wilbert Evans (1990) and Richard Boggs (1990). Questions remain regarding how Oliver came to possess the tapes and why they were donated to the library.
“After consulting with our legal counsel, the Library agreed to return the records to the Department of Corrections to be housed with the other execution recordings in their custody,” Flagg said. “The Department prefers to keep these permanent records together until such time as they choose to deposit the whole collection in the state archives. These records must be permanently retained but it is at the agency’s discretion whether to retain them within the agency or transfer them to the state archives.”
In 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty after then-Governor Ralph Northam signed two measures into law, following passage in the General Assembly.
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, more than any other state,” Northam said at the time. “Virginia’s history, we have much to be proud of, but not the history of capital punishment.”
The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center opposes capital punishment and tracks it throughout the United States. Interim Executive Director Richard Dieter said that tapes of executions, such as those mentioned above, are key to transparency and preventing history from repeating itself.
“The results have been sometimes long and torturous kind of processes happening in the execution chamber,” he said. “Usually, the government is required to be transparent about how it spends the taxpayers’ money and how it is representing the public. But, in this area, there’s been a lot of secrecy, not just in Virginia, but all over the country.”
A 2018 report by the center cited by the Associated Press 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.
“We need to know both the government’s successes and its failures,” Dieter said. “The effort has been to whitewash or scrub the death penalty from any bloody scenes, or pain, or anguish, or slow death, or all of those things. The reality is it’s not swift, and sure, things go wrong sometimes. Executions have taken hours. The public has little knowledge of that, little knowledge of what causes the mistakes or whether they can be remedied.”
VDOC spokesperson Carla Lemons reportedly told the Associated Press that the aforementioned audio tapes that ended up at the Library of Virginia were taken “without VDOC’s knowledge or permission.”
“Although the department may have discretion to release certain materials contained within the execution files, VDOC gives deference to the privacy interests of current and former VDOC employees, victims, and inmates and, therefore, chooses not to publicly release these sensitive materials,” she said in an email.
Brumfield said that the audio tapes are a starting point, not an end result; a small piece of a fuller story.
“Capital punishment has always been the least transparent,” Brumfield said. “It’s important to get this perspective from the Department of Corrections’ side, but it’s also very important, too, to weigh that perspective with perspectives of other people who were there.”