An interview with an executioner

Ex executioner, Jerry Givens.

Ex executioner, Jerry Givens.

Most of us live a life so sheltered that the question ‘Could I kill?’ remains academic; never tested by necessity or circumstance.

And yet we still ask others to kill in our name.  Soldiers, sometimes Police Officers and, in 31 states of the USA, Executioners must do society’s dirty work.  We require them to do what we won’t or can’t, but we rarely hear the details or the repercussions.

I confess the thought of hearing such stories both repellent and entrancing.  I’m simultaneously horrified by the idea that someone could carry out a killing and fascinated by its affect on that hired killer’s mind and spirit.  But within minutes of meeting such a man I know I may never get the answers to such academic questions.  At, 59, Jerry Givens looks and sounds like a soft voiced Preacher.  Growing up poor and fatherless in the housing projects of Virginia, he never had a sheltered life.  As a teenager he attended a Friday night social and just before he asked a girl to dance she was shot in a random attack; her brains fell into his hands.

After Jerry lost his job at a tobacco factory he took a job as a Correctional Officer.  The boss asked Jerry to join the ‘Execution Team’ before Virginia bought back the death penalty in 1976. He took the job because at that time, he reasoned people wouldn’t murder if they knew they’d die as a punishment.  Besides, he felt people who kill should be killed. Eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth and all that.

It must be said, the men who he had to kill were often, in my words devils.  Jerry tells the story of one savage who nailed an 86 year old woman to chair, anally raped her and set her on fire.  We all want people capable of such depravity gone from the earth.  If someone I loved was tortured in such a way I admit I would probably want the killer dead, but I’d want the state to stop me getting my wish.  Jerry did the work of the majority of Americans who believe in the death penalty. 


It’s amazing the detail of his life that Jerry remembers.  He recalls the first execution in some detail. It was 10th August 1982 and Frank Capolle a former police officer turned killer and rapist was in the electric chair.

“It was hot, the basement it had no air. We had big window open and a big fan blowing. Frank – he was the coolest thing in there and he was one being put to death. I was nervous, team was nervous, director was nervous.  … When Frank got ready he put both thumbs up. Bring it on.  That was it. You could see the smoke then you could smell the burning flesh. It’s an awful greasy smell. … That night I went home I didn’t get much sleep I was wondering did I do it wrong did everything go OK?”

But while Jerry remembers the names and many details of the next 61 executions he either can’t remember or can’t explain how he felt about taking another life. He can’t delve into the thoughts he had when he pressed a button or depressed a syringe to kill. Jerry’s a religious man but can’t acknowledge that by ending a life, he was taking on the role of God.  He would pray with each prisoner - even on those who didn’t want it – silently with his hand on their head as he cut their hair.

We all self justify much of what we do to live and survive.  I eat meat but couldn’t kill an animal.  Jerry felt he was turning others off crime.  He reasoned that because the murderers knew there was a death penalty in Virginia, he was not committing homicide. “I could consider those people on death row as a suicide.”

Jerry Givens will admit that being an executioner was enough of a burden that he couldn’t tell his wife and children.  He can’t reveal if they noticed him changed by the job.  After I’ve spent an hour with Jerry, I’m beginning to think he did the job by dissociating.  By dropping a part of himself.  He talks of entering ‘executioner mode’.  By 1999 when the executions were coming more frequently Jerry was arrested for fraud and perjury and says he couldn’t concentrate on proving himself innocent because he was still on an execution high.  He couldn’t come down.  His mind was not right.  He had stayed in executioner mode and eliminated too much of himself in the process.

Then his secret was exposed in the newspaper.  As a prisoner now himself, he prayed for help.

“God said don’t worry you go out and save souls.  You took 62 but you can save millions.” Jerry now campaigns against the death penalty but he doesn’t see it as a penance or redemption because he still doesn’t regret his job – God put him there for a purpose. God took him away for a purpose.

His message is that death row inmates have an advantage over us. They know when they are going to die. … It’s a different look on the face. I can see it but you can’t. I can’t explain it … you got to be ready. Get ready.  Get ready!”

Jerry is releasing a book about his life, Another day is not a promise.  He’s in Australia to take part in tonight’s Insight on SBS.  In ‘Trained to Kill’ professionals will talk about what taking another life does to a body, mind and soul. It seems Jerry is the only participant who has not been tormented by what he’s done.  But perhaps only he and his God know the truth.  And are able to understand it.   

Insight is on SBS tonight at 8:30pm.
It is repeated Wednesday 1:00pm on SBS ONE and Friday at 7:30pm on SBS TWO.

34 comments so far

  • What an interesting topic. I could not consider fighting off the instict to kill and doing one of these jobs. Even though Jerry talks the talk surely it can't not be weighing on his concious and affecting his psyche.

    Commenter
    Kelly
    Date and time
    March 27, 2012, 10:39AM
    • I agree with Kelly. Jerry says he's not affected and I get that he had to compartmentalise what he was doing but I don't think he has completely resolved all of it. Although telling yourself that the prisoners chose suicide is a great way to justify what you're doing. I don't mean to attack Jerry - my heart goes out to him in a way. I also can't help but wonder if that first experience of violent death traumatised him, making him better able to dissociate than other people.

      Commenter
      Cindy
      Date and time
      March 27, 2012, 10:49AM
  • Fascinating that he has such a strong Christian faith - surely there must be problems with reconsiling this internally and externally. Thanks Sarah.

    Commenter
    Vera
    Date and time
    March 27, 2012, 10:41AM
    • What a powerful story, Sarah. Even though we don't have death penalty in Australia, it's true that we do ask others to do our 'dirty jobs' for us without sparing them a second thought (police, solidiers, etc). It's fascinating to see what a job like this does to someone's mental health. From Jerry's story, it certainly sounds like it takes its toll...

      Commenter
      Amanda
      Date and time
      March 27, 2012, 10:55AM
      • Oh, this is a dream job. There are so many people that need the chair, injection or the noose in Australia and I'd love to be able to serve the people of this fair land by ending such lives. It'd be similar to killing feral pigs or feral cats.
        It's just sad that our politicians are too scared to bring the death penalty back. Taxes pay for the prisons that repeat offender rapists and paedophiles retire to and that's the answer for everything nowadays- more taxes...

        Commenter
        Alex
        Location
        Finley
        Date and time
        March 27, 2012, 10:58AM
        • In the USA executing people actually costs a lot more than imprisoning them for life. So no savings to be had!
          And if you'd "love" killing animals simply because they're "feral" (and not to eat) then there's something wrong with you. People who kill animals are the ones who end up killing people.
          It's not that "politicians are too scared to bring the death penalty back" rather the majority of Australians do not support the death penalty.
          You're clearly uneducated on the matter. Maybe you should do some research before offering your services to murder people.

          Commenter
          AK
          Date and time
          March 27, 2012, 11:28AM
        • 'Dream job'? 'Love to end such lives". 'Similar to killing feral pigs'. How terrifying and how telling these comments are. It might help to reflect that there is nothing more innocent in the world than a 'feral pig'; it just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and then it's deemed acceptable to kill them by Alex and his ilk ... and with the relish that comes over in this disturbing post.

          Commenter
          Chrissie
          Date and time
          March 27, 2012, 12:22PM
        • Alex, you are the last person who should have this kind of job. Your attitude is a lot closer to the people who end up in the chair, than the ones pulling the switch! Countless serial killers have used the exact reasoning you're using to justify their killing - dehumanising their victims by thinking of them as vermin or animals.
          They're not. They may be repellant but they are still human. And often they aren't repellant - but charming thoughtful individuals, who are sometimes even wrongfully convicted.
          I am against the death penalty due to the flaws in most justice systems that can lead to the innocent being convicted and the fact that is serves revenge not justice, but if we *are* forced to kill to protect society, it should be done regretfully and sorrowfully - NOT joyfully. Nobody should take joy in killing - that's a sign of something really worrying.

          Commenter
          Trowzers
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          March 27, 2012, 12:26PM
        • Sounds like you could be a candidate. Shame it's not a crime for being chronically stupid.

          Commenter
          Onlooker
          Date and time
          March 27, 2012, 1:34PM
      • What a fascinating read. I definitely live a sheltered life and this has opened up my eyes to questions of life and death and what it takes out of you to interfere with both. Thanks Sarah.

        Commenter
        Anna
        Date and time
        March 27, 2012, 11:00AM

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