Interview With an Executioner

Inside the mind of a state-sanctioned killer who executed 62 men.

December 17, 2007, 4:39 PM

Dec. 17, 2007 — -- Jerry Givens spent 17 years as a professional killer. From 1982 to 1999, he killed 62 people.

He was never punished. His work was paid for by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

As the state's chief executioner, Givens pushed the buttons that administered lethal doses of electricity to the condemned. He could even choose how many volts to administer. And he is the first to admit that it was largely guesswork.

"If he was a small guy, I didn't give that much. You try not to cook the body, you know. I hate to sound gross,'' he told ABC News in a rare interview.

Only a handful of executioners in America have ever spoken publicly about their experiences, and fewer, if any, have revealed the emotional toll the job can take on a person or the mind-set of the man behind the proverbial mask.

Givens told ABC News that his experiences in the death chamber have caused him to change course and oppose the death penalty.

Givens defies the stereotype of the cold-souled executioner. A deeply religious layman, Givens claimed he prayed with many of the condemned men he was about to execute, a bold gesture at odds with the grim, emotionless solemnity with which executions are often portrayed in the movies.

He said he'd suggest to a condemned man that this was a last chance to repent and seek forgiveness from God. And he said he'd join the men in prayer. No one's tomorrow is guaranteed, he said.

"This could be my last chance too.''

The emotionally charged, ongoing debate in the United States over capital punishment has reached a near fever pitch in recent days.

On Monday New Jersey's governor signed a bill banning capital punishment in the state. In a momentous and much-anticipated showdown, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next term on whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The U.S. has executed 1,099 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976, according to The Associated Press. In 1999, 98 people were executed, the most since 1976; last year 53 people were executed, the lowest since 1996.

Givens said he trained with a Texas execution team that showed him how to administer the deadly cocktail of drugs used in lethal injection executions. Still, he has no formal medical training.

Corrections officials in the 36 states where the death penalty is legal have long faced the vexing challenge of having executions administered, or at the very least overseen, by trained medical professionals. But the Hippocratic oath ("first, do no harm") ethically prohibits medical professionals from participating in executions. The American Medical Association recommends that doctors not participate in executions.

In 2006, lawyers for the state of Missouri told a federal judge that they simply could not meet his demand that a certified anesthesiologist oversee state executions.

State attorneys reportedly told the judge that authorities in Missouri had sent certified letters to 298 qualified anesthesiologists who lived anywhere near the state's death chamber. They were turned down by every single one, according to a report in The New York Times.

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."

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."

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.

Givens described to ABC News the sometimes wrenching mental and emotional preparation that would precede each of his executions -- days seared so deeply into his psyche that he can still recite the dates.

"To make that transformation from corrections officer to executioner … it was hard,'' he said. "You have to get away from yourself. You have to eliminate yourself."

The nights and days following the executions were equally challenging, he claimed.

Going back to his regular job, returning home to a wife he loved dearly but who he chose to keep completely in the dark about the executions, turned him into an emotional "yo-yo'' at times, he said.

In the time since he left the job -- after a 2000 conviction on perjury and money-laundering charges stemming from cars he bought on behalf of a convicted drug dealer who was a childhood friend of his -- he has changed his mind about the efficacy of capital punishment.

"If the jury, if you let the [jury] foreman be the executioner, than I think they'd give a second thought about execution,'' he said. "If you let the judge be the executioner, I think he would give a second thought about sending somebody to be executed."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events