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.