Interview With an Executioner


Many states have abandoned guidelines requiring medical professionals to perform executions, because there are simply not enough doctors or nurses willing to perform the job. And in states like Virginia, as Givens told ABC News, training for such a consequential job is thin at best.

ABC News showed Givens the American Veterinary Medical Association's guidelines for the lethal injection of pets, which states that the drug used to euthanize an animal can be so potentially painful that "it is utmost importance that personnel performing this technique are trained and knowledgeable in anesthetic techniques, and are competent in assessing anesthetic depth appropriate for administration of potassium chloride intravenously."

Asked whether it concerned him that the nation seems to take more care in the execution of pets than it does in humans, Givens said, simply, "yeah."

"It's wild."

Givens himself said he had no medical education. "Well,'' he said as an afterthought, "first aid."

"I Was Just Performing a Job"

Givens can be remarkably matter-of-fact about his past work as an executioner. He was one of the most prolific executioners in the nation -- the 62 condemned men Givens put to death account for about 11 percent of all those executed nationwide during those years.

When he took the job -- he said he was simply picked at the age of 30 by a superior at the Virginia penitentiary where he worked -- there was a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty and violent crime and murders were on the rise in Virginia, he said.

Givens said that at the time, he believed the death penalty was an effective deterrent, but said he no longer does.

After the death penalty was reinstated in Virginia, Givens noted, ruefully, "crime went up.''

Givens described himself as a loyal employee who felt a duty to the state to accept his part-time post as executioner, even though his salary as a corrections officer did not increase.

He approached it simply as a job that somebody had to do.

"Taking a life is not a pleasant thing to do,'' he said. "You have a condemned [inmate] that didn't do anything to you."

"I didn't do it to make you suffer,'' he said. "I didn't do it to inflict pain on you. I don't want to really hurt nobody. I was just performing a job."

"I'm Going to Suffer a Lot"

But time and trouble taught him that the price he paid was too high, he said. With the emergence in the past two decades of DNA as a nearly foolproof legal tool to right wrongful convictions, Givens has been dogged by doubts about his actions.

"You're the American people,'' he said, growing momentarily animated. "You sentenced a guy to be executed. You give him a trial, then you send him to me to be put to death.

"Then later on you [say] that this guy was innocent. You didn't put him to death. I did.

"I performed the execution. So you might suffer a little. I'm going to suffer a lot, because I performed the job."

The procedures surrounding state executions are often cloaked in secrecy, and one state after another has fought in court to protect that secrecy. Executioners, for obvious reasons, almost always remain anonymous.

For 17 years, Given told no one outside his job as a corrections guard that he was an executioner.

Not even his wife. When he eventually told her, he said, she was not happy.

"You've Got to Eliminate Yourself"

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