Interview With an Executioner

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

ByABC News
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.