Two days, on the front page of its Arts section, The New York Times published a lengthy piece, with photos, by Larry Rohter titled “The Echoes of an Execution Reverberate Loud and Clear.” It was timed to an NPR program broadcast last night and a new book, both about a To Kill a Mockingbird type rape/murder case from 1951 that caused national controversy. A key component: live radio coverage from the day of Willie McGee’s execution in Mississippi that happened to be recorded by a young reporter named Jim Leeson.
The tape, in fact, inspired the book, to be published next week, The Eyes of Willie McGee. The author, Alex Heard, had listened to the tape when he was a student of Leeson’s at Vanderbilt in 1979 and later discovered that it had been donated to the University of Southern Mississippi. Leeson, who later worked for The Associated Press and covered the civil rights movement for the Race Relations Information Center, described for the Times how the historic taping came about.
This morning, the Times carries a quite different story: an obituary for James Leeson, who died earlier this week at the age of 79. It seems that he committed suicide, by gunshot. His body was found outside his home in Franklin, Tenn.
Leeson had told the Times recently that he had recorded the execution broadcast using seven-inch reels he had bought to record music. He taped it because he found it a “most unusual event to be broadcast, to say the least.” His tape reveals fairly somber announcers but a celebratory crowd, with plenty of cheers and whoops when the switch is flipped on the state’s famous “traveling electric chair.”
The case against McGee drew protests at the time and questions remain today. Among those who protested: William Faulkner and Albert Einstein. Bella Abzug was one of McGee’s attorneys.
A lengthy tribute from a friend appears at the Nashville Scene site.