Tales of an Executioner

There are two somewhat similar articles that are making the rounds on the internet this week, both of which shed light on a rarely heard from element of executions. One of them is from the former Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner, who oversaw five executions and still remembers the faces of the men he had to watch die. He is able to offer a unique perspective: that of the correctional officers who may or may not agree with the executions the state carries out, but who have to go through with them because it is their job. Many of these men and women experience tremendous stress and trauma during executions and are given no therapy or assistance to deal with whatever aftermath they may face.

The other story is from an actual executioner, 59-year-old Jerry Givens, who anonymously sent 62 men to death during his 17 years as an executioner in Virgina. I’ve pulled some excerpts below.

From the story on the Georgia commissioner:

I can’t always remember their names, but in my nightmares I can see their faces.

Last Wednesday, as the state of Georgia prepared to execute Troy Davis despite concerns about his guilt, I wrote a letter with five former death-row wardens and directors urging Georgia prison officials to commute his sentence. I feared not only the risk of Georgia killing an innocent man, but also the psychological toll it would exact on the prison workers who performed his execution. “No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt,” we wrote in our letter.

The men and women who assist in executions are not psychopaths or sadists. They do their best to perform the impossible and inhumane job with which the state has charged them. Those of us who have participated in executions often suffer something very much like posttraumatic stress.

From the story on Givens, the former executioner:

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?”

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