The Execution Tapes

The 1936 hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky — the last public execution in the United States. (Courtesy: The Last Public Execution in America)

Last night Warren Lee Hill was granted a last minute stay of execution by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals because he is mentally disabled. He came within 30 minutes of being executed by lethal injection in Jackson, Georgia.

Since this country’s last public execution in 1936, there have been no known photographs or recordings of an execution. In 1998, however, audio tapes of 22 Georgia executions–recorded by members of the state’s Department of Corrections for their own records–were discovered and subpoenaed by criminal defense lawyer Michael Mears in a lawsuit he brought challenging the state’s use of the electric chair. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay obtained these recordings, and, in conjunction with WNYC, broadcast them on public radio.

Ivon Ray Stanley mugshot.

Ivon Ray Stanley was convicted of the 1976 murder of Clifford Floyd, an insurance agent, who was robbed, beaten, and shot. Stanley, who had an IQ of 62, was executed on July 12, 1984. He was 28 years old.

Below is a recording of one of these, the execution of Ivon Ray Stanley in 1984. Note that the tape is edited– extended silences, repetitive phrases, and unintelligible comments have been removed.

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This is a recording of the telephone conversation between department of corrections officials in Atlanta and the prison personnel in a room adjacent to the death chamber. The main speaker is Willis Marable, an assistant to the warden at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, where all of the state’s executions are carried out. From the small room adjacent to the death chamber, Marable watched the execution through a one-way mirror and described in detail exactly what transpired to officials in Atlanta. The “clunking” sounds on the tape are prison doors slamming elsewhere in the institution.

To begin the electrocution, three volunteer corrections officers, standing beside Marable, each pressed a button simultaneously. Only one button actually triggered the electricity, so the employees never knew who actually sent the fatal charge. Electricity then passed through Stanley’s body for a total of two minutes in the following stages:

Stage 1: 1,700 volts (5 sec.)
Stage 2: 1,000 volts (7 sec.)
Stage 3: 208 volts (108 sec.)

This was followed by a five-minute “cool-down” period before two physicians entered the death chamber to determine death.

Jeremy Bowden

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Jerome Bowden–with an IQ of 59–was found guilty of the burglary, armed robbery, aggravated assault, and murder of two women for whom he was doing yard work. He was electrocuted on June 24, 1986. This is an audio clip of Bowden’s last words,recorded in the death chamber, immediately before his execution.

Public outrage at Bowden’s execution prompted Georgia to pass a 1988 law forbidding the execution of a retarded person. And on June 20, 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing killers who are mentally retarded violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment (Atkins v. Virginia).

Warren Lee Hill was sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike. Hill’s lawyers argued that his IQ of 70 should spare him the death penalty under the 2002 decision. Numerous state courts ruled that Hill doesn’t qualify under Georgia law, which requires inmates to prove mental impairment “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Hill was granted a last minute stay of execution on February 19, 2013 by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Related:

Hector Black came to StoryCorps to remember his daughter, Patricia Ann Nuckles. Nuckles was was murdered by Ivoa Simpson in 2000. Simpson is serving a sentence of life without parole in Telfair State Prison in Helena, Georgia.

Hector Black remembers the murder of his daughter, Patricia Nuckles, by an intruder in her home.
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Recorded in Nashville, Tennessee


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