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I Was Virginia's Executioner—Here's What I Learned

I was responsible for putting 62 inmates to death in Virginia and it taught me a lot about our legal system.

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Jerry Givens worked for 25 years for  Virginia's department of corrections. He was the state's executioner from 1982 to 1999 and administered the death penalty to 62 inmates, some by lethal injection and some by electrocution. For many years, even his own family did not know the truth about his job. Now Jerry campaigns to end  capital punishment. He is the author of  Another Day Not Promised and is on the board of  Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Today he opens up on Comment is free about his old job, what caused him to change his mind and the realities of America's criminal justice system.

[Readers posted questions for Jerry in the comments section on The Guardian's story page. He responded to as many as he could.]

1. Can you describe what the day was like when you had to perform an execution?

On the day before, we begin what we call a 24-hour "death watch". Normally I would be there starting at 9pm during the death watch and spend the night at the institution in case something would occur during that period. Everything is reported that happens. We have security guys for the "death team", a special group of people who simply maintain security for the death chamber. Inmates arrive at  Greensville, the institution with the death chamber, 15 days prior to the execution date. For those days, we have to provide security around the clock.

We would test the equipment frequently, whether we had an execution or not. But on the day of an execution or during that week, we would have all sorts of training. We train for the worst. We train for the man to put up resistance. Most would not, but sometimes it would get rough. 

On the day of the execution, I could almost tell if the condemned had already accepted that this was it for them or not. Some folks resigned themselves to it. I would try to see if the inmate is at that level and if he's ready or not. If there's tension in the building, you could sense it. He would prepare and get things together for last meal and who he wanted to see.

Most of the time, during the actual execution, I'm back behind the partition, behind a curtain with my equipment. I'm alone as the executioner, but we had a crew that would go and escort the inmate and place him on the gurney or in the chair and strap him down and a doctor who would confirm the heart had stopped after.

2. Can you explain the difference between the types of executions you had to perform?

When I first started, it was only death by electrocution. Electrocution consists of 2,400 to 3,000 volts. The condemned receives 45 seconds of a high volt shock and 45 seconds of the low cycle. It takes about 2.5 minutes. Then there is a five minute grace period to let the body cool down. Then a physician goes in the room with a stethoscope to see if there is a heartbeat. Back in the mid-1990s, Virginia decided to go with lethal injection instead. That consists of seven tubes that are injected into the left arm. Three tubes of chemicals and four that are flush. So you administer the first chemical (sodium pentothal), then a flush, then the second chemical (pancuronium), then a flush, then the third chemical (potassium chloride) and then a final flush at the end. You have to keep people who remove the body from being exposed to chemicals.