Friday, 11 January 2008

Profile of an Executioner

Profile of an Executioner

Australia's Sydney Morning Herald has a profile of Jerry Givens, a former Virginia prison guard and executioner. "Cruel and unusual punishment," is written by Jeff Sparrow.

He told no one about what he did: not his wife, not his friends, no one. "I had to change. You've got to be transformed to take a life, to become - I hate to say an animal - but a person that you are really not. You are tense. You go up and down. Is the execution going ahead? Will they get a temporary stay?

"It takes a while to come down afterwards. It might take two days. It might take three days. It might take months. And some time you go up and down after that anyway, and then when you got another one scheduled, you got to get ready to do that all over again.

"And then you try to live a normal life."

He tells of his family problems, the troubles he had at home, how his wife had to cope with the moods he could not explain, and how the executions kept coming.

Are there any in particular that he thinks about, I ask.

"Sometimes, they say things that will stay with you the rest of your life," he says, his voice flat. "We had a guy in a wheelchair. You got to pick him up, his legs dangling, put him in an electric chair. You got guys complaining about their veins; you can't find a vein, you're hurting him, he's going through pain. It locks in and stays with you, and any time you hear about executions, these things pop up."

Then there were the families of the condemned men. "This is your last visit with your mother, your sister, your child or whatever and then you have to sit there and you got to watch your son be killed. To bring closure to a family member by killing someone else, it's not ... " His voice fades away and he shakes his head again.

ABC World News profiled Givens on its December 17 broadcast in the report, "Interview With an Executioner."

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 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."

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