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

Human Rights

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.

If I had a choice, I would choose death by electrocution. That's more like cutting your lights off and on. It's a button you push once and then the machine runs by itself. It relieves you from being attached to it in some ways. You can't see the current go through the body. But with chemicals, it takes a while because you're dealing with three separate chemicals. You are on the other end with a needle in your hand. You can see the reaction of the body. You can see it going down the clear tube. So you can actually see the chemical going down the line and into the arm and see the effects of it. You are more attached to it. I know because I have done it. Death by electrocution in some ways seems more humane.

3. What caused you to change your opinion on the death penalty?

It's not something that I enjoyed. I never enjoyed none of it. When I accepted the job, there was nobody on death row in Virginia. A person had to be foolish to commit that kind of crime knowing they could be put to death. It's like volunteer suicide. I never thought that 100-some people would end up on death row. I had no idea that I would actually execute 62 people. I didn't know that when I signed up.

Even when I was on the job, I was always asking, what can I do to prevent these guys before they get there? I used to bring kids down from schools. I would allow the kids to sit in the chair and explain that I want to see kids get an education and remove themselves from violence or you'll end up here. I know it helped. I used to get letters. They would write back saying thank you for steering them in the right direction. I also never understood why we would spend money on the death penalty instead of spending money to try to prevent these people from getting in the system in the first place.

When I found out they had some innocent people on death row that came almost hours before I had to take their life, then I knew we had to change. That would be on me for the rest of my life.

I honestly believe God stepped in and said enough is enough. I was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. I remember the day because I was supposed to have an execution soon, March 16, 1999. They were after a friend of mine. To make a long story short, the grand jury said I was involved in money laundering and perjury for buying cars for my friend who obtained the money illegally. I told them I thought he had straightened out. But I did 57 months in a federal institution. I knew then that the system wasn't right. I don't believe I had a fair trial, so I realized maybe some of the people I executed weren't given a fair trial.

4. What kind of training did you need to be an executioner?

It was complicated for me. When I was asked, death row was empty in Virginia. I was thinking to myself, I didn't agree, but I would give it some thought. Then after the first execution in 1982 that I assisted, the guy who did it got sick. He just stopped working and retired. And I took over from there. We had so many executions so close together. After the first one, I did it by myself in 1984. I always said once I get to 100, I was going to stop. I'm glad I never got that far.

I guess I had a reputation in the prison system. I would put my life on the line for a lot of inmates and people. I would go in and fight guys with my bare hands to try to stop the violence. I did my job. I saw it as saving the lives of people, stopping violence. One day I was saving people. Then I was taking lives. I had to transform myself into someone who could go and take the life of another person. It's not an easy task to do. 

When I accepted the job, I never told my wife or kids or anybody. I didn't want them to go through anything I had to go through. If I told someone, they would tell someone. It would have been like a snowball and gotten bigger and bigger and everyone would know exactly what I was doing.

5. What was your annual salary when working in the Virginia prison system? Were you paid extra to perform executions?

We got roughly $39,000 to $50,000. It depended what pay grade you were at as a correctional officer. When I resigned, it was closer to $50,000. We got benefits, but I did not get any extra pay as the executioner. Sometimes, I think if I hadn't been selected to be the executioner, then I think that I would have worked my 27 years without any problems and settled for my retirement. But when I was forced to resign, it took away everything. I lost my pension.

If I had known what I had to go through as an executioner, I wouldn't have done it. You can't tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal.

6. What's the biggest mistake you've ever made while working?

Biggest mistake I ever made was taking the job as an executioner. Life is short. Life only consists of 24 hours a day. Death is going to come to us. We don't have to kill one another. 

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