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Families of executed prisoners want death penalty tapes made public

The Virginia Department of Corrections recorded the execution of Travis Spencer's brother. Spencer wants his tape published to hold the state accountable.
Catie Dull
/
NPR
The Virginia Department of Corrections recorded the execution of Travis Spencer's brother. Spencer wants his tape published to hold the state accountable.

Amy Taylor kept the details of how Robert Gleason Jr. died from their son for as long as she could. But at age 10, Eian Taylor searched for his father's name online at school and saw the headlines.

"Convicted Murderer Who Pleaded for Death Electrocuted in Virginia," stated one, from 2013.

"Va. killer shows bits of humanity before execution," read another.

After Eian came home that day with questions, his mother told him everything she knew. But she didn't tell him that Virginia had made an audio recording of Gleason's execution behind the scenes. That's because she hadn't heard about it. No one had informed their family that prison employees recorded 31 execution tapes between 1987 and 2017 — including the one about Gleason.

Execution tapes are rare and have only been published twice before. In 2009, a judge ordered the Georgia Department of Corrections to release 19 execution tapes. Earlier this year, in January, NPR published four execution tapes from Virginia. Reporters found them after a former employee of the Virginia Department of Corrections donated them to the Library of Virginia's archives in 2006.

Cassette tapes obtained by NPR from the Library of Virginia contained audio recordings of the executions of four prisoners.
Monika Evstatieva / NPR
/
NPR
Cassette tapes obtained by NPR from the Library of Virginia contained audio recordings of the executions of four prisoners.

But when NPR discovered that the Department of Corrections had recorded more tapes, and asked to review them under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the state denied the request — and took back the four tapes from the library.

NPR sued the state to obtain all 31 of the secret execution tapes. In the first hearing of that case, in August, an attorney for the Virginia attorney general's office argued that the state was holding the tapes back partly because they were confidential prisoner records. The state wanted to protect the privacy of the executed prisoners and their surviving family members, she indicated. The judge ruled in favor of the Department of Corrections.

But NPR spoke with members of six of the families of prisoners whose executions were recorded. They all said that no one had informed them about the tapes' existence before reporters reached out.

Two families didn't want to discuss the tapes, but the other four said they wanted Virginia to release the recordings to the public. They were less concerned with their own privacy and more interested in being able to hear whether the state had acted correctly when it put their loved one to death.

Taylor believes he has a right to learn the details of how his father died from the tape, and that others do too.

"Did someone mess up and then he ended up actually suffering more than he was supposed to?" wondered Taylor, now 16. "If that were to be released, that could help a lot with shedding some light on that."

Families want proof

Travis Spencer works as a comedian in Virginia today, but he never jokes about how much his family endured when his older brother, Timothy Spencer, was sentenced to die.

Travis Spencer holds family photographs of his older brother, Timothy Spencer.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Travis Spencer holds family photographs of his older brother, Timothy Spencer.

Travis played for his high school's football team at the time. One day after a game, he found his mother inconsolable at home, clutching a newspaper that revealed authorities had caught the man known as "the southside strangler." It was his brother.

"I just hugged her, for I don't know how many hours," he remembered, "and just let her cry."

Spencer said he constantly prays for his brother's victims and thinks about the pain their loved ones must have suffered. He has an idea of what they experienced, he said, because he remembers how he and his mother received death threats after his brother's conviction and were treated as if they weren't human.

"The family does go through some things," Spencer said, "and that's never been talked about."

Spencer didn't witness his brother die and has doubts about how the state treated the case. Now, he wants the execution tape released — and wants to listen to it.

"If there's something out there about my brother, I would like to hear it," Spencer said. "Just like if you have a brother, you would want it too, right?"

At the time, Travis Spencer's older brother, Timothy, did not want him to watch the execution. Now, he wants to hear the audio the Department of Corrections secretly recorded during the event.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
At the time, Travis Spencer's older brother, Timothy, did not want him to watch the execution. Now, he wants to hear the audio the Department of Corrections secretly recorded during the event.

Of the 158 executions that were conducted using the electric chair nationwide since 1973, at least 10 are known to have gone wrong. Three of the mistakes occurred in Virginia, and two of those executions were secretly recorded by the Department of Corrections.

In one case, blood dripped from a man's face after he was electrocuted. In the other, when a doctor checked the prisoner for his vital signs after being electrocuted, the physician determined that the man hadn't yet died.

A fourth Virginia execution, conducted using lethal injection in 1996, also had complications. Employees struggled to place the needle in the arm of Richard Townes Jr. for 22 minutes. They eventually executed him through a vein on his foot.

Robert Dunham, an attorney who specializes in death penalty cases and was involved with the compilation of a national database of "botched" executions, said the Virginia execution tapes present an opportunity to find out whether more had gone wrong.

"I think there's an overwhelming public interest in that information coming out," Dunham said, "and there's no state interest in hiding that information once the execution has been completed."

Unanswered questions

In 2009, Virginia executed Edward Bell by lethal injection. Tracy Evans is the mother of his children. She believes his tape should be released to journalists for the sake of transparency.

But she's not interested in hearing it herself. The execution already hurt her and her family enough, she said.

In the small town of Winchester, Va., where Evans' children grew up, teachers at their schools openly made remarks about their father. People approached her in the grocery store to ask whether he really did it. At work, co-workers gossiped about the murder Bell was convicted of committing.

"Embarrassing and devastating at the same time," Evans said. "We are the family. Did we really do the crime? It just blew my mind."

After finding out that Bell's tape existed, Evans wanted to know why the audio was recorded. NPR posed that question to the Virginia Department of Corrections. The agency declined NPR's interview request but sent a statement by email.

During the tenure of the former director of the agency, "the VADOC's goal was to have a documentation for the events when they occurred so they could be properly logged," a representative responded.

But when reporters asked the agency why only 31 tapes existed — Virginia executed 77 other people between 1987 and 2017 — the representative didn't give a reason. The agency could not speak for the thinking of previous leadership, he said.

Evans still has questions.

"If it's like a precaution, to make sure that each place is following the procedures, I was thinking, then why are they keeping them hidden?" she asked. "So what's really going on?"

The exterior of the Virginia Department of Corrections in Richmond, Va.
/ Carlos Bernate for NPR
/
Carlos Bernate for NPR
The exterior of the Virginia Department of Corrections in Richmond, Va.

In September, NPR appealed the court's decision to allow the Department of Corrections to keep the tapes private. Virginia appointed a new director, Chadwick Dotson, to lead the department that same month.

In his previous role as the state's parole board chairman, Dotson was a strong advocate for transparency and told staff to provide as much information as possible to requests for information. A representative for the Department of Corrections said Dotson still believes in accountability and is currently reviewing the policies surrounding the tapes with other members of state government.

Dunham, the death penalty lawyer, believes the right thing for the Department of Corrections to do is to release the audio to the public — especially since relatives are supportive.

"They're still hiding what may have happened, even though Virginia no longer has a death penalty," he said. "If an individual's family members do not object to the release of that information, then I can't conceive of a relevant public policy interest in keeping the information secret."

Barrie Hardymon edited this story. Noah Caldwell produced it. Research by Barbara Van Woerkom. Photo editing by Emily Bogle.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.
Tirzah Christopher
Tirzah Christopher is the 2023 Roy W. Howard fellow at NPR. An international investigative reporter, she graduated in December 2022 with a master's degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.