Since this country’s last public execution in 1936, all U.S. executions have been carried out solely in front of state-selected witnesses. Alongside the controversy over the morality of capital punishment has raged a parallel debate: Should the state’s ultimate act against an individual be enacted in secret? Many in the media have tried to bring their cameras and tape recorders into the execution chamber, but courts have consistently ruled that, although the media do have a place in witnessing executions, they have no right to record the scene.

In 1998, however, audio tapes of 22 Georgia executions — tapes recorded by members of the state’s Department of Corrections for their own records — entered the court record when criminal defense lawyer Mike Mears subpoenaed the tapes in a lawsuit he brought challenging the state’s use of the electric chair. Sound Portraits acquired the recordings, and, in conjunction with WNYC, produced The Execution Tapes.

The Execution Tapes is an hour-long public radio special hosted by Ray Suarez featuring excerpts of recordings made in Georgia’s death house during state electrocutions. This broadcast is the first time a national audience is able to hear what takes place during a state-sponsored execution.

In addition to audio of the 1984 execution of Ivon Ray Stanley, the program features audio of an execution that had to be “reinitiated” — that is, an execution in which the inmate is still alive after being electrocuted for two minutes, requiring that he be electrocuted again. There is also a selection of inmates’ final statements, recorded immediately before their execution.

Excerpts of the tapes are followed by two roundtable discussions about the implications of the tapes’ broadcast. Participants include 60 Minutes co-editor Mike Wallace, First-Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, professor of psychiatry and psychology Robert Jay Lifton, and Diane Clements, president of the victims’ rights organization Justice for All.

Recorded in Jackson, Georgia. Premiered January 1, 2001.