Jerry Givens points through an A4 sheet of paper with the faces of dead men on it. It looks like an old school yearbook with dates of their deaths underneath. “I killed him. And then I killed him. Finished him, and finished him too,” Jerry Givens moves from one to the next with a certain matter-of-fact resignation.
From 1982 to 1999 he was in charge of executions in the US state of Virginia. During that time, Givens killed a staggering 11 per cent of all the people put to death in America. More than 14,000 were killed before 1972 when the death penalty was declared unconstitutional however, since 1976, when the Supreme Court resurrected capital punishment, more than 1260 have been put to death. And what of those who were innocent?
There appear to have been at least 18 people wrongfully executed in the United States alone. That’s to say nothing of those whose cases involved ‘such overwhelming doubt of guilt that the only rational inference to be drawn from reading them together as a collection is that most, if not all, of the defendants were innocent‘.
People like Troy Davis, who was lethally injected last year despite significant doubt about his guilt.
17 of the 289 people who were exonerated on DNA evidence since 1989 served time on death row.
It was these figures that eventually made Jerry Givens wonder about the almost two decades he spent extinguishing the lives of convicted criminals. Mamamia sat down with Mr Givens this week:
Q: You were the Chief Executioner for Virginia for 17 years. How does someone get a job like that?
A: Well, I was appointed. I was asked would I do it and I took the responsibility. But at that particular time we didn’t have no one on death row, so … it wasn’t a hard to make a choice.
Q: How do they say it? Do they say ‘oh, we need you to be on call to kill some people’?
A: I think within the two year period I had built a reputation of being very responsible. I don’t think many people want to do it. There’s no extra pay in it. If there was some extra pay in it they’d probably post it on the bulletin board. You just get your normal pay and a tap on the shoulder.
Q: I want to know what that first time was like, what it required of you in the minutiae and mentally?
A: Well the first case was an ex-police officer by the name of Frank Coppola. He’d bashed a woman’s head on the floor and killed her. Anyway, Frank had dropped all his appeals and told his lawyer he didn’t want to fight his case any longer, that he wanted to be executed. And this was gonna be my first one, I’d never really even witnessed one at this point. And for some of the people that was workin’ in corrections at the time it was gonna be our first one too.
The place where we held it was in East Basement of the Old Penitentiary and for years, for 20 years, the chair had been boarded up. So we cleaned the chair up and washed it off and painted it, we did everything, the maintenance work.
On that night, August the twelfth – it was real hot, I’ll never forget it – and you could take your hand and wipe the sweat off the wall. We had some fans and some big bay windows open. The population, the inmates, they were hollering, you know?
But Frank droppin’ all his appeals, well, the inmates thought he was crazy, you know? When I looked at Frank in the chair he had put both thumbs up in the air and we asked him if he had any last statement, words he wanted to say.
He said: “Bring it on.” The button was pushed. 22-23,000 volts went into that body. We had a high cycle for 45 seconds and a low cycle for another 45 seconds, that means the amps are higher and than lower.
And that was the end of that. We had a debriefing and we asked each other how we felt and, you know, we were all somewhat nervous but Frank’s droppin’ all his appeals it kind of released us from a lot of the responsibility. You know, he didn’t put up no fight. We had trained for months looking at if an inmate would put up a struggle, so this is what we expected, we expected the worst. But we didn’t have to look for that because Frank, you know, volunteered for in a way.
Q: How did you go back to work the next day?
A: Well, you have to remember, this was not my ordinary job. My responsibility as a correctional officer was to save a life! And then I had to transform myself into a person that would take a life. I learned that this transformation period, at some time, would probably be difficult.
I tried not to let anything come between me and my executions when I had an execution scheduled. After that first one, I went on a roll after that. The next one was in 1984.
Q: Can you tell me more about that execution? I’m assuming that inmate did not drop his appeals?
No, he did not. But it had a lot of … it was a high profile case. He was one of this pair of brothers that gone and killed at least seven people, that they admitted to.
Two weeks prior to his execution, he was baptised. To me and to some people, that seems a funny thing to do. Why would a man of this magnitude go and get baptised?
I volunteered and went up and helped him with his baptism and prayed with him and what have you.
Q: When you pray with someone like that, what do you say?
A: We had to ask God to try to forgive this person for what he’d done. You know, I have my own life to be responsible for as well. I’m no better than that person.
Q: How do you execute someone in Virginia?
A: Well, the usual. I cut his [Jerry killed 62 people but they were always men. Most death row inmates are] hair because we had to shave the head bald so the current can flow through and you don’t want the hair burning. We then put the headpiece on him and the leg piece that fits on the right calf.
So, the cable wire hooks into the headpiece is connected to a pole of electricity coming inside the chair. Whatever electricity comes in through the head has to go out through the leg.
Q: When they are electrocuted, what happens to the body?
A: It all depends on the size of the body. If you have a real large person, you might run it on a 45 second cycle and then let it run a full course but on a smaller person it probably wouldn’t take that much.
Q: So, you’re doing a bit of guesswork?
A: Well, yeah. You know, you have a certain thing that you should do but then again you had to use common sense. I didn’t want to really … destroy the body or make it catch on fire. You had to use your own discretion.
Q: Did you have a family during this time?
A: Yeah, but they didn’t know anything about this. I didn’t discuss it because if you do that, that burden is placed on them. They’d just be in the same position that I was in when it would come up to an execution.
I mean, my wife knew I was involved in death row inmates because every time one moved they would call. And after some guys escaped, myself and others went to pick them up from the airport after they were recaptured. She knew I was involved, but how involved, she had no idea.
Q: Has your work changed the way you think about justice?
Yeah, it has. Because we don’t really … in America … justice for a black man like myself was different when I was coming up. We were something to be … picked out among others. If you see five black guys walking in the street they were up to no good. But they could be goin’ to the church! That’s the mentality that we came from.
I see some change these days and yet some of this stuff is still there. Not too long ago there was a young kid shot by police officers, but when you relate back to the 1960s, this was a normal thing that happened. So you can see some similarities because those things were allowed back then. We allow that to happen, in a way, now because the state still kills people. I’m not saying it is the same, but there are similarities.
Q: Do you think the death penalty a deterrent to violent crime?
A: No, it never was. The only thing it does is, if that individual is executed, he won’t ever go out and commit another crime. He won’t, because he’s dead. In the states that you don’t have the death penalty, you have less crime. In the states that you have the death penalty, such as Virginia, the crime rate is higher. It’s not a deterrent.
Q: Were you ever a big Bible reader and are you familiar with the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and, if so, how do you reconcile that with your work?
A: Well, it had somewhat of an effect but you know, I took matters into my own hands. I said ‘God, look at the crime this man has committed. Does he deserve to be part of life itself’? And, I didn’t wait for an answer. That was my job. I didn’t really … I gave it some second thought, I prayed on it, but then again I just went on and did it because it was a job.
Later on, I began to somewhat change. There was a lot of people who went on to the death row that were innocent. So it brings about some doubt. I said, well, God, if I execute an innocent person, please forgive me. Just take me away from this …
We had a guy by the name of Earl Washington. He was scheduled to be executed and two weeks’ prior to that he was given a stay and later on his sentence was commuted and after that he was let free. He was released. The DNA wasn’t correct. Yeah, so, when this happened … you see how I feel? I’d ask myself: was everybody given a fair trial? Those are the questions that you have to carry around with you.
Q: You’ve changed your opinion a little. Do you look back now, are you now an advocate for getting rid of the death penalty?
A: Yeah. I took a serious look at the death penalty itself. On the death certificate it reads homicide. OK? Now, in the United States we try to reduce the homicide rate in all the states. How can you reduce it, but yet, kill, to increase it? That doesn’t make sense. So, in my mind, I used to change it.
I never went out to kill the person. People came to me. So if you knew that if you commit a crime here in Virginia, and you know that crime carries the death penalty, that means that you are committing suicide. You are volunteering your life to be taken.
It had to be. If I called it homicide, that would make me a murderer. Don’t that make sense? So, people that make these decisions … they didn’t have to execute. I did. You get what I’m sayin’?
Q: I was going to ask. What did you think of those who sentenced people to death?
A: The Judge, the jury, when they sentence a person to death, that is it. That’s the bottom line. They’re done with it. Myself? I take that person’s life. That person has never done anything to me. It’s not in self defence. I take his life.
I have to wear that the rest of my life. That’s going to be with me, if I choose to let those things bother me … which I don’t. But, let the Judge and the jury do all the formalities that it takes, hear all about the case, make the decision in their mind that the person is guilty … let them do the executing. I’ll guarantee 90 per cent of the cases will end up as life in prison.
What resource are we getting from the death penalty? What benefit are we getting? It can’t be closure to the victim’s family. And it can’t help the condemned’s family. And the victim, they might have been against the death penalty. So you’re not doing it for them.
If we, as people, would learn to love one another regardless of skin colour, learn to love each other and remove the hatred out of our hearts I think that we would eliminate death as a result of crime and the crime rate will drop. People will learn how to appreciate life itself and this will be a better world.
Here in the United States, we should be the example. We should be mature enough to deal with these situations without having to bring death on another person. And here we are in a recession when you are going to spend $2m to take a life when you could spend $2m to save many lives.
Q: Is that how much it costs?
A: That’s the cheap execution. The lawyers, most of them have three lawyers, the appeals, it takes years. Decades. They tried to cut it in half but then again when you try and cut something like that in half, look at the risks you are taking! You might have an innocent person! This person needs all the time in the world to prove his innocence, don’t try to rush it, because if you gonna rush it, that makes you the murderer and you put a burden on me.
I think they should sentence someone to death in prison, not life in prison. You stay there till you die, but we cannot give life. I think that’s more effective than killing because if he’s innocent, he’s got all his life to prove it.