How It Feels To Kill 62 People: Confessions of an Executioner

by Selene Nelson — Guest Contributor, Jul 15, 2015

Originally Published by ThinkProgress.org

<B> Jerry Givens </b> <p> CREDIT: DeathPenaltyPhoto.org

Former Executioner Jerry Givens

CREDIT: DeathPenaltyPhoto.org

When it comes to capital punishment, we already know the fiscal cost: studies have found that a death sentence is up to ten times more expensive than life without parole, often at a cost of around $300 million per head.

But what about the moral cost?

The death penalty is often justified on the grounds that it brings peace to the families of victims; that the act of ending a life may mark an end to their pain. But for those who impose the death penalty, the truth about the emotional trauma of killing another human being belies this logic.

“You can’t tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal. If I had known what I’d have to go through as an executioner, I wouldn’t have done it. It took a lot out of me to do it.”

These are the words of Jerry Givens, former state executioner for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Givens executed 62 people over 17 years in a state that ranks third in the nation for number of executions. The emotional toll of his former job is something he can’t escape. “You have to transform yourself into that person that will take a life. Every time an execution was announced, it meant that I had to prepare myself mentally to kill.”

Confessions of an Executioner

It’s rare to find a former executioner willing to speak openly about their experiences. The nature of the job causes many to conceal their real occupation like a shameful secret. But Givens is one of the few executioners who speaks candidly about his past career, and he provides a unique insight into a world that few people ever venture into.

It’s clear from speaking to Givens that he is a compassionate man. He talks often of being able to look past the crime to see the human being underneath. “We degrade people and call them animals,” he told ThinkProgress. “But when I worked on death row, I didn’t see that animal. I saw a human being. When you call people an animal and treat them like that, that’s the behavior they’ll show you. But they can also show you that they’re not like that; that everybody can change.”

An executioner seems a curious job for a person to whom empathy comes easily. How did this compassionate man become an enforcer of the death penalty? What did it take for him to kill another human being? For Givens, it was a steadfast faith in the justice system. This faith meant that doubts were suppressed and fears were tolerated. Any gnawing unease was overpowered by the notion that it must be the right thing to do – it was state-certified, after all.

“I always ask myself, would I have agreed to participate in executions if I knew then what I do now?” Steve J. Martin, an execution witness for the Texas Department of Corrections, told ThinkProgress. “We do these things that we would normally never be involved in because they’re sanctioned by the government. And then we start walking through them in a mechanical fashion. We become detached. We lose our humanity.”

Givens agrees. “The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it. The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it,” he said.

 CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Deliberately killing another human being goes against all normal societal standards, and many individuals must go to unusual and harmful measures to accomplish such an act. A 2005 Stanford University psychology study by Michael Osofsky highlighted the tactics employed by prison staff to absolve themselves from feelings of guilt and despondency.

“Individuals must morally disengage in order to perform actions and behaviors that run opposite to individual values and personal moral standards,” Osofsky explained in the study. “Capital punishment is an example of this type of moral dilemma, where everyday people are forced to perform the legal and state-sanctioned action of ending the life of another human being, which poses an inherent moral conflict to human values.”

For many people involved in enforcing the death penalty, the subsequent trauma would never dissipate. California Governor Edmund Brown was responsible for deciding whether death sentences would ensue or be commuted to life without parole. Though he granted clemency to 23 out of his 59 cases, the weight of these decisions still overwhelms him.

“The longer I live, the larger loom those 59 decisions about justice and mercy that I had to make as governor,” Brown said. “It was an ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have. And looking back over their names and files now, I realize that each decision took something out of me that nothing – not family or work or hope for the future – has ever been able to replace.”

Needless to say, the enforcers of the death penalty aren’t the only ones to suffer. Fully accepting the imminent end to your life, against your will and at the hands of another is a bizarre reality that many prisoners just couldn’t face, as Givens recounts.

“This one guy…was sort of moderately retarded. He’d ordered McDonald’s and a chocolate nut sundae for his last meal. But he couldn’t swallow it. So he said to me, ‘I can’t finish it so I’ll put it in the fridge for tomorrow.’ Here he is, three hours away for being executed and he’s thinking about putting his sundae away for tomorrow. But there was no tomorrow for him. He hadn’t realized this was his last day.”

Givens’ experiences in the death chamber have led him to campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, even driving him to write a book, Confessions of an Executioner. His motivation is deep-seated. “There are things I want the public to know that they don’t. I need to expose things that should be exposed. I don’t want to leave anyone in the dark, because America is still putting innocent people on death row. And people don’t know about it. People don’t understand.”

A Lethal Dose

The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last year is one example of the realities of the death penalty, which Givens believes all people should know about. “He strained and struggled violently, his body twisting, his head reaching up from the gurney,” journalist Katie Fretland wrote. “Sixteen minutes after the execution began, Lockett said “Man,” and the blinds were lowered… It would be a full 43 minutes after the drug was administered before Lockett died – and only after he had thrashed on the gurney, writhing and groaning.”

Lockett was killed using a new combination of experimental drugs and the consequences were nightmarish. The doctor was sprayed with blood when an artery was hit; Lockett was in “some pain” as he was pricked at least 16 times in the attempts to find a vein; the scene was described by prison wardens as “a bloody mess” and the prisoner’s multiple attempts to talk like something from “a horror movie.”

The emotional repercussions of this blood-splattered scene were harrowing. Witnesses to the execution spoke of their distress and recounted not being able to sleep for days after. It is the quiet nature of lethal injections that is their selling point, after all –- state-sanctioned homicides veiled with a clinical serenity. As Givens knows all too well, no one wants to see actual blood spilled, or face the unwelcome reminder that, murderer or not, there is a human being dying in front of them.

After Europe blocked sales of the lethal drug sodium thiopental to the United States, the Department of Corrections were forced to look elsewhere for such a powerful anaesthetic. But global pharmaceutical companies didn’t like the idea of their drugs being used to kill people, and so drugs were sourced, purchased, but then again quickly blocked. Soon, the departments of corrections hit a wall. There were simply no anaesthetics strong enough.

But there were other drugs. Not anaesthetics, but sedatives like midazolam, usually administered in conjunction with an anaesthetic to relax a patient. Despite the warnings that midazolam is simply not powerful enough to produce the same coma-like state as sodium thiopental – a state absolutely necessary to ensure the subject feels no pain and the execution is ‘humane’ – midazolam became the drug of choice and the fatal experimentations began.

This unyielding desire to purchase and use barely-tested lethal drugs on prisoners doesn’t surprise Givens. “The criminal justice system is corrupted and we don’t want to own up to it. They think they can get any drugs they want. Where they got so much power from, I don’t know. The drugs should be disclosed to the lawyer and to the condemned – he should know what he’s going to die from.”

As many expected, the first midazolam executions were riddled with red flags. Pastor Laurence Hummer’s account of the execution of Dennis McGuire is just one of them: “His stomach swelled up in an unusual way. He struggled and gasped audibly for air. I was aghast. Over 11 minutes or more he was gasping for breath, his fists clenched the entire time. His gasps could be heard through the glass wall that separated us. There is no question in my mind that Dennis McGuire suffered greatly over many minutes. I consider that inhumane.”

Despite these reports, midazolam was recommended for use by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and correctional facilities across the country jumped aboard. Last week, despite significant condemnation the
Supreme Court rejected the idea that midazolam is a cruel and unusual punishment and sanctioned its use, clearing the way for deferred executions to ensue.

“The drugs they’re using, who approved it? What doctor approved it?” asks Givens. “You can’t judge pain. You can’t measure the pain that a person is going through, physical or psychological. The guy receiving the drug can’t tell you, because he’s gone. You’ve never died before, so you can’t say. Even myself, I don’t know. I can’t tell you what a guy on the other end is feeling when I’m pushing drugs into his body.”

The Baseline of Morality

The botched executions didn’t end in Oklahoma. Sentenced to death in Arizona for a 1989 double murder, in July 2014 Joseph Wood took two hours to die. JournalistMauricio Marin had never witnessed an execution before; prison staff had told him the process “lasts about 10 minutes” and would be “very clinical”. Instead:

“I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. What seemed like an eternity passed… Finally, the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3:49 pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution began. I thought: Is this how long it’s supposed to take a man to die?”

Republican Senator John McCain was outspoken in terming Wood’s protracted execution as “torture”, but the governor of Arizona Jan Brewer disagreed. “Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said. “This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims.”

The argument that a convict’s crime was so heinous that it negates any qualms about their execution is popular with death penalty supporters. The incongruity of using the actions of a convicted killer to determine the baseline for what’s morally acceptable is not lost on Givens, who views this as a dire expression of our most base and ugly thirst for revenge.

“It is revenge – you can’t put it any other way,” he said. “We want revenge and we want it right away. Death is going to occur anyway, but we’re so impatient we have to execute someone. That’s the mentality people have. America was built on killing and there’s hatred in our hearts. But it shouldn’t be that way.”

While most supporters of the death penalty refute the idea that it’s about revenge, District Attorney Dale Cox -– responsible for one third of the death sentences in Louisiana since 2011 -– readily agrees. “I’m a believer that the death penalty serves society’s interest in revenge. I know it’s a hard word to say and people run from it, but I don’t run from it because I think there is a very strong societal interest,” Cox recently told a local reporter. “I think we need to kill more people.”

A death sentence is also no quick way to closure, as Bill and Denise Richard, parents of the 8-year-old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings took pains to point out. Publishing a personal appeal in the Boston Globe titled ‘To end the anguish, drop the death penalty,’ the Richards implored prosecutors to sentence Dzhokhar Tsaernev to life without parole instead of death.

“The continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” they wrote. “We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”

The Richards are not alone. Marietta Jaeger, whose seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered by a mentally ill man, requested that prosecutors seek a mandatory life sentence instead of the death penalty. Jaeger has been vocal in her opposition to capital punishment, asserting that in reality, the death penalty only creates more grieving families and turns the victims into that which they deplore – people who kill people:

“To say that the death of another person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood-thirsty revenge. My daughter was such a gift that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate the goodness of her life; the idea is offensive and repulsive to me.”

Where To Go From Here

Studies have shown time and again that the death penalty is no deterrent for criminals and in fact, states with the death penalty have much higher murder rates than states without. Capital punishment is used unduly against non-whites (a disproportionate 55% of death row inmates are people of color) and the awareness of judicial incompetence and racial bias is felt keenly by Jerry Givens.

Givens recalled the case of Earl Washington Jr., a 22-year-old black man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, as one example that made him lose faith in the justice system. Washington’s execution was stayed nine days before Givens was scheduled to kill him. Years later, new DNA evidence led Virginia’s governor to pardon Washington, who was released in 2001.

“I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row. Days later, I would have executed him,” Givens said. “You have two types of people on death row: the guilty and the innocent. And when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row.”

But even if the law has not yet caught up, attitudes are starting to change on the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is at historic lows, and abolitionists remain optimistic even after the most recent Supreme Court ruling.

“We have to look at the big picture,” Givens explained. “Everyone on Earth has a death day: you, me, everyone. We can’t stop death, but we can stop killing…We have to think about the generation that’s coming up. We can’t let them go through what we had to go through. We tried it; we tried it, and it didn’t work. Now let’s get them going in a different direction from us.”

Selene Nelson is an British-American freelance writer. She writes about criminal justice and current affairs.