By Daly, Michael
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 14
Byline: Michael Daly
For the anonymous executioners of death row, the 'high' of pulling the lever is often followed by a lifetime of doubt.
Only a fellow executioner like 59-year-old Jerry Givens would know how crushingly hard it will continue to be for those who put Troy Davis to death last week even as he continued to insist on his innocence.
"The executioner is the one that suffers," Givens says on the day after Davis's execution in Georgia. "The person that carries out the execution itself is stuck with it the rest of his life. He has to wear that burden. Who would want that on them?"
During the 17 years that Givens worked as an executioner in Virginia, he put 62 men to death. And each time, he felt what he calls "the executioner high," an adrenalized state that always imparted a merciful unreality as he sat behind a curtain and pulled the lever, releasing a fatal cocktail of three drugs that seemed to him less humane than the electricity he previously unleashed by pulling a switch. The chemicals of lethal injection always took eternal minutes longer than the deadly jolt from the electric chair.
"I had to transform myself into a person who would take a life," Givens says. "That transformation might linger for a while. You might be on that for three weeks."
He figures this same high visited the executioners in Georgia who dispatched Davis last week, in accordance with the state's Administrative and Execution Procedures, Lethal Injection, Under Death Sentence. "I guess those people last night were on that emotional executioner high." He says the high is all the more intense with cases that receive public attention, such as when he dispatched the Briley brothers in Virginia in the mid-1980s after their seven-month spree of rape and at least 11 murders.
But once the protective high wears off, the executioner is left with the reality that he has taken a life. And in the case of condemned prisoners like Davis, who maintain their innocence to the very end, there is always that lingering doubt. The only certainty is that the penalty is irrevocable.
"You take an innocent life--that means I committed murder," Givens says.
If Troy Davis wasn't in fact innocent, there is a near certainty that some prisoners presently on death row are. A recent tabulation by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that 138 prisoners were exonerated after being sentenced to death between 1973 and 2010. That included five in Georgia, the state that remained determined to put Davis to death despite the numerous reasonable doubts regarding his guilt and the momentous public outrage joined by such varied public figures as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.
While the prosecutors, jurors, and judge all had their say in putting a prisoner on death row, the task of actually carrying out the sentence falls to an executioner with no idea of what was said and done at trial. "You don't know," Givens says. "You don't take part in the trial. You weren't there to witness it." And even cases of undisputed guilt can continue to haunt executioners to the end of their days. In all 62 of Givens's cases in Virginia, the official paperwork bore a word that has stayed with him. "When you look at the death certificate it says, 'HOMICIDE,'" he notes. "How can it leave you?"
His career as an executioner ended 11 years ago, when he was convicted on charges of perjury and money laundering unrelated to his work--going to prison himself for four years, swearing he was innocent. Givens is now a truckdriver, but the residual horror of his time as an executioner flashed back to him as he followed from afar the news reports of the Davis case. "Whenever they have an execution, I get back to when I used to do them. It's human nature."
Also in human nature is a cumulative revulsion to taking life even when it is legally sanctioned. Those who finally have been driven to campaign against the death penalty include not just executioners like Givens, but a number of wardens who found it unbearable even to give the order that the executioners carry out. …