Gallows humor

Banal, chilling execution recordings are abandoned by Georgia

Ivon Ray Stanley's death by electrocution unfurls in moment-by-moment detail on audiotape: He is led into the death chamber and strapped to the electric chair; electrodes are connected to his legs and head; sweat is wiped from his brow before a hood is placed over his head; as the first of three jolts of electricity enters his body with a loud pop, he stiffens and clenches his fists.

For more than 15 minutes, Georgia prison official Willis Marable delivers a dispassionate play-by-play account of Stanley's July 12, 1984 execution in one of a series of death chamber recordings that have recently attracted national media attention.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the methodical description of the electrocutions themselves are the snatches of joking and laughter by prison officials that have been preserved on tape.

In the Stanley recording, after the prisoner has been declared dead, Ralph Kemp, then warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, which houses the electric chair, is heard reporting to his superiors that the popping sound was probably caused by a stray arc of electricity from the prisoner's leg band to a small pool of water near his foot.

The answer comes back: "It [the execution] ran smooth, Ralph, but don't screw it up next time." Kemp chuckles.

A moment later, then-Attorney General Michael Bowers is heard on the phone commending Kemp and his crew for a job well done.

"We appreciate it," Kemp replies in an upbeat tone. "Just give us another one."

Kemp, who retired from the Department of Corrections as assistant commissioner in 1995, is now warden of Wheeler Correctional Facility, a 1,524-bed prison in Alamo in south Georgia operated by the private Correctional Corporation of America.

"I've never listened to the tapes and I don't remember saying that and wouldn't want to comment," Kemp says when asked about his statement to Bowers. "I don't see what good it would do to talk about this now."

Kemp adds that the executions he oversaw were carried out with the highest degree of professionalism.

Mike Light, executive assistant to current Corrections Commissioner Jim Wetherington, stumbles for the right words to describe his department's concern at hearing Kemp's taped comments 17 years later.

"It's hard for us to speak about something so long ago, and I'm not trying to defend those comments ..." Light says. "They're definitely regrettable because the professionalism of the department could be called into question."

Still, Light says Wetherington didn't take public relations into account when he determined in 1999 the department would quit taping executions.

Atlanta defense attorney Michael Mears, who in March won a stay of execution for murderer Ronald Spivey, has used the state-made recordings as evidence in several death penalty cases. He believes corrections officials decided to curtail the recording of electric chair executions after realizing that the tapes could prove to be an embarrassment to the department.

"I think when they mess up [an execution], they know it's out there for the public to hear and they don't want to run that risk," says Mears, who, as head of the Multi-County Public Defenders Office, has been involved in 160 capital cases.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1983, Georgia had made audio recordings of every execution — 23 in all — and was the only state to have done so.

Locally, excerpts from more than 12 hours of taped executions aired Tuesday on Atlanta WABE-FM (90.1) as part of a special, hour-long program that includes the entire execution of Stanley, who was convicted of robbing and murdering an insurance salesman by burying him alive.

The tapes also have been the recent focus of a New York Times article, a "Nightline" episode and a report on Atlanta's WAGA-TV, but their existence has never been a secret in Georgia, where the recordings have surfaced occasionally in news reports over the past 18 years.

The recordings were initiated because prison officials wanted a public document to show they had followed proper procedure in carrying out executions, but the audiotaping simply has been deemed no longer necessary, Light says. Ironically, Georgia courts ordered that the Spivey execution could be videotaped by defense attorneys who aim to prove that electrocution is cruel and inhuman treatment. The General Assembly last year mandated that all death sentences handed down after May 1, 2000 be carried out by lethal injection, but all current Death Row inmates face the electric chair.

Mears hopes the local and national broadcasts of the execution tapes — which he provided to the New York-based producers of the public radio program — reached a wide audience.

"The more people listen to this, I think they'll want to move away from using the electric chair as a means of execution," Mears says.??