Friday, June 14, 2013

Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty

Jerry Givens
Jerry Givens executed 62 people.

His routine and conviction never wavered. He’d shave the person’s head, lay his hand on the bald pate and ask for God’s forgiveness for the condemned. Then, he would strap the person into Virginia’s electric chair.

Givens was the state’s chief executioner for 17 years — at a time when the commonwealth put more people to death than any state besides Texas.

“If you knew going out there that raping and killing someone had the consequence of the death penalty, then why are you going to do it?” Givens asked. “I considered it suicide.”

As Virginia executed its 110th person in the modern era last month, Givens prayed for the man, but also for an end to the death penalty. Since leaving his job in 1999, Givens has become one of the state’s most visible — and unlikely — opponents of capital punishment.

Givens’s improbable journey to the death chamber and back did not come easily or quickly for the 60-year-old from Richmond. A searing murder spurred his interest in the work, but it was the innocent life he nearly took that led him to question the system. And he was changed for good when he found himself behind bars.

His evolution underscores that of Virginia itself and the nation. Although polls show that the majority of state residents still support the death penalty, Virginia has experienced a sea change on capital punishment in recent years that is part of a national trend.

Givens grew up in the Creighton Court housing complex in Richmond, where he also graduated from high school in the early 1970s. By 1974, he had gotten a job at a Philip Morris plant and then lost it after fighting with a co-worker.

He recalled someone telling him that he should apply for a job at the state penitentiary before he got sent there. Givens did just that.

After two years as a prison guard, he said, a supervisor approached him about working on death row. He would not be paid extra, but he accepted the job.


Source: The Washington Post, Articles, Justin JouvenalFebruary 10, 2013





"Executioners sentenced to remorse"

Ordinarily they don't talk. The executioners have no name, no face, and are not supposed to have qualms. "When I executed prisoners, even my wife knew nothing," remembers Jerry Givens, 60 years old, former executioner in the state of Virginia, and one of the first to have broken this silence. "I didn't want it to affect my wife, I didn't want her to have to live through everything I felt," he explains, sitting in a restaurant in his city of Richmond, in front of a fish he sometimes stops eating when his story becomes too macabre. "But since this death we give is legal, approved by the voters, why hide?" he wonders, between 2 bites.

"When people do things they're ashamed of, they tend to do it in secret," replies attorney Steve Northrup, director of the group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an abolitionist movement which Jerry Givens has joined. "The jurisdictions which practice executions take a lot of trouble to keep secret the identities of all the persons involved."

More than 3000 prisoners are awaiting their last hour on the famous "death rows". These last few years, however, the number of executions is down (43 executions in 2012, compared with about 60 a year, or more, at the beginning of the 2000s). More than 60% of the Americans still say they favor the "supreme punishment", but this support is tending to decline. The statements by executioners is contributing to this slow evolution. Between 1982 and 1999, Jerry Givens killed 62 prisoners, 37 by electrocution and 25 by lethal injection of barbiturates. "I never liked that," he says. "For me, every time an execution was announced, it meant that I had to prepare myself mentally to kill. Ordinarily, as a prison guard, my job was more to preserve lives. During executions, I was in an opposite role, I became the one who had to take a life."

For the executioner, the putting to death of a prisoner breaks down into a series of well coded steps, says Jerry. "At the moment, I thought especially about doing my job right so as to avoid mistakes that would make the prisoner suffer. After his last meal the prisoner had the right to a shower. Then, if he was sentenced to be electrocuted, I had to shave his head and his right leg, where the electrodes would be placed, to avoid the hairs catching fire. Then he had the right to a final telephone call. Then the death sentence was read to him once again. While I was cutting their hair, I asked them if I could pray for them. Some said yes, others replied that they didn't care." At the time, Jerry Givens was convinced that the death penalty was right. As a teenager, he had seen a girl killed right before his eyes at a party. Murderers guilty of such acts just deserve death," he thought.

"Most of the prisoners talked to me," continues Jerry. They asked me if it was going to hurt. I told them I didn't know, having never been in their position. Or they asked me what would come after life. There again, I had to say I didn't know. Some made jokes. They asked me for a few minutes more, so as to be nice and clean when they went to heaven, or asked me to give them a nice haircut. Others were serious. One had ordered a McDonald's sandwich but couldn't manage to swallow it. He asked me to put it in the fridge for the next day. He hadn't realized this was his last day. Others fought right to the last minute with their lawyers to try to get a stay."

The executioner is not the only one involved, of course, a whole team of "technicians" helps him at the moment of the execution, each with a precise task, but finally, it was Jerry who had to push the button. At times he told about it like a workman presenting his work: "I did so many executions that at the end all I had to do was look at the size of the prisoner to know how many volts would be needed to kill him. If the guy wasn't very heavy, a 35-second discharge would be enough, if he was bigger, 45 or 60 seconds needed to be planned."

The worst, for Jerry Givens, was the executions by lethal injection, which have become more common in the United States. "When you pick up the syringe, you feel much closer to the prisoner than when you just push a button. You see the chemical solution flow, like you were seeing death advance down the tube." His other worry today is that innocent men were among the 62 men he killed: "I truly hope there were no innocents among them," he says. "If I ever learned thata I had executed innocent men, I don't know what that would do to me."

In 1999, Jerry Givens' career as an executioner came to an abrupt end: he himself was arrested and sentence to 4 1/2 years in prison for receiving money from drug trafficking. On the other side of the bars, where he feels he was wrongly sent, he turned to God and reconsidered his point of view on the death penalty. "Who am I to give death?" he wonders today. "It's up to God to decide who must die, not me. By applying the death penalty, we are worth no more than those who crucified Jesus, and innocent man."

Today working as a construction site truck driver, Jerry goes all over the United States for his work, but also to talk about his conversion and his new abolitionist faith. "Many people still defend the death penalty, but when I ask in public: 'Who would like to do this job of executioner?' no one raises his hand." Militating also helps him overcome this past as a killer, he explains. "If I kept all that inside, I would risk blowing up." Many of his former colleagues suffer from post-traumatic stress, reports Jerry, who claims that he is OK himself: "I think that God made me do that so that I could speak out now."

Ron McAndrew is another of those rare "State killers" who talk today about their profession. The experience seems to have been much more traumatic for him. "To this very day, I am in therapy, I have nightmares. The prisoners I executed come back to visit me in my dreams," confesses this sturdy 74-year-old man, who has however had all sorts of adventures: intelligence agent in the air force, stationed in France at the Evreux base from 1956 to 1961, perfume seller in Europe, Japan and Vietnam, then prison guard in Florida where he climbed through the ranks to become warden of the prison which included supervising executions. In 1996 and 1997, Ron McAndrew executed 3 men in the electric chair. At the third execution, that of Pedro Medina, a Cuban refugee, the body caught fire. "When we sent the electricity, we heard a sharp pop, and his head began to smoke," says Ron. "We had set this man's head on fire! The whole room filled with smoke. It was the worst experience I ever went through." After this tragedy he was sent to Texas, where he attended 5 more executions, by lethal injection, to train in the technique. "I didn't find it cleaner or easier," he sighs. "In both cases, I was facing a man first living, then dead."

For Ron McAndrew also, the death penalty was long obvious: "I grew up in the country, in North Carolina, at the end of a dirt road, in a really conservative family where the Holy Scriptures were taken literally: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," he explains. "For me, the death penalty was as natural as looking to the left and right before crossing the street." Even before his 1st execution, his conscience began to bother him. "It was in 1997," he remembers precisely. "The mother and sisters of the 1st prisoner I was supposed to execute, Leo Jones, came to see me at the prison. 'Warden,' the mother, an old black woman who could barely speak asked me, 'Will you let me hug my baby one last time before you kill him????' I could feel all this mother's pain and I could no longer turn my head away. At the last minute, her son got a reprieve - he was executed later, when I had left the job. But immediately afterward I received orders to execute another prisoner."

At the time his sleep was disturbed. "I took sleeping pills and I drank. A bottle of wine every evening, glassfuls of cognac. I had nightmares, I was cracking up, my wife was really worried about me. I was sicker and sicker." Ron McAndrew finally asked for a transfer and began psychotherapy.

"My therapist told me that talking about it would help me remain healthy," he explains. "As long as I have that in my mind, I need to talk about it, she told me."

These former executioners who have become opponents of the death penalty are a little club, very informal, with about 10 members, says Ron. "We call each other when our morale is low. Recently a colleague asked me how I hang on. My recipe? A really supportive wife, a good therapist, and a little medication." At least 2 former executioners have committed suicide in recent years in the United States. Dozens of others live hidden, still convinced of their "mission", or keeping their traumas to themselves, in silence.

Source: LIBERATION, June 12, 2013