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What It's Like to Be a Death Row Executioner in America

The precise methods prisons use to kill prisoners are often shrouded in secrecy, but we do know that the teams in charge of executions are rarely made up of experts.
May 27, 2015, 4:00am

Utah's execution chamber. Via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr user KimChee

When the Saudi Arabian government posted an ad on its civil service jobs portal looking to hire eight new executioners last year, the world got an interesting glimpse into the Gulf monarchy's HR process. The new recruits will be operating in a country that is going through a death-penalty boom right now, with 85 people executed so far this year, as opposed to 88 in all of 2014, as the Guardian reported. The executioners will be "religious functionaries," and thus on the lower end of the pay scale for government work.

But while the execution biz is experiencing a spike in Saudi Arabia, the US still ranks fifth in the world for capital punishment. Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments about lethal-injection procedures, specifically which drugs are used and whether their use constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But where do Americans find the executioners who put those drugs in people? And what about in those extremely rare cases where prisoners have been shot by firing squad or placed in an electric chair or gas chamber?

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"What is commonly called 'executioner' is not a career," former Oregon death row warden Frank Thompson, who oversaw two executions at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, told me in an email. "Think of them as soldiers," he advised, "in the war against crime" who are "sent into a tiny room to kill somebody."

Still, within those teams reside individuals with singular tasks that make them stand out from the rest. "With the electric chair, there's always somebody who pulls the switch," Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me. "With lethal injection, there's somebody who pushes the button that releases the chemicals. But nobody is responsible for everything."

The conductor of the whole process is the warden, who "makes the choice of who is to perform all tasks associated with carrying out an execution," according to Thompson. So it would be fair to argue that even when there's a single button or switch—lethal injection is usually rather more complicated than that—there are multiple executioners. But what do we know about them?

As of last year, according to Mother Jones, ten states—including Oklahoma, and Texas, which have the some of the highest rates of execution in America—had passed laws that shroud the procedure, and the team that performs it, in total secrecy. According to Missouri's law (to take just one example), "The identities of members of the execution team, as defined in the execution protocol of the department of corrections, shall be kept confidential."

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Read more about death penalty secrecy laws at VICE News.

But members of teams resign, and they occasionally speak up afterward. Jerry Givens, who calls himself "Virginia's executioner from 1982 to 1999," has spoken publicly about the procedures involved in an execution, but not much about who his colleagues were or how they got their jobs. In 2013, Givens told the Guardian that he was a corrections officer on a more traditional career path prior to becoming an executioner. He explained there's a "death team," not just on the night of an execution, but in the days leading up to it.

"Walls Unit." Photo via Flickr user Nick DiFonzo

In an feature published in 2000 by the New York Times, Terry Green, a member of the death team in the "Walls Unit" of Huntsville, Texas—America's busiest death row—said members of that unit had to be at least a sergeant in the state Department of Corrections. Green was on the "tie-down team," the group that straps the condemned onto a gurney before they are executed. (We called the Huntsville Unit penitentiary to ask if this was still the case and will update if they respond.) According to Dunham, "That particular thing was Texas-specific." He said he's never seen restrictions based on a rank in any state's set of regulations.

The death team's task is to "simply maintain security for the death chamber," according to Givens. In Virginia, inmates would arrive at the death chamber 15 days before the execution date. The death team would be assembled and would provide around-the-clock security until the execution.

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In other executions, the condemned inmate shifts to a special holding cell near the execution chamber during the lead-up to the big day, necessitating a separate security detail. Dunham explained Givens's use of the term "security"—it's not that the danger of escape necessarily increases in the run-up to the execution, but that the situation keeps getting more complicated. "Warrants are statutorily mandated at different stages of the legal proceedings," Dunham said, including a final death warrant. With each step, he explained, "There are special security precautions taken for the transport of the prisoner. There's security and secrecy about when the person is going to be moved," along with "who he or she may speak to, and what materials they may have."

Executioners don't tend to be experts in their fields. When speaking to the Guardian,Givens suggested his training was minimal. He assisted with an execution in 1982, but before the next one rolled around, the previous executioner had grown ill and retired. "When I was asked, death row was empty in Virginia," he said.

According to Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center—which has been critical of the way states carry out executions*—this dearth of training is typical, not just for the person tasked with doing the fatal deed, but for the whole team. "Because it's unethical for doctors, nurses, and EMTs to participate, you typically end up with prison personnel… performing the execution," he said. It's a process that, in the case of lethal injection, includes tasks like finding a vein for an IV, and measuring drug doses.

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The presence of medical professionals in other types of executions is rare too. In the case of the electric chair, Dunham told me that everybody involved, from those walking the inmate into the room to those strapping the condemned into the chair and affixing the electrodes, are prison personnel, and pointed out that "it was prison personnel who came up with the great idea of using a different sponge," in the notorious case of Jesse Tafero, whose head caught fire during his 1990 execution. (According to Ellen McGarrahan, who reported on Tafero's execution for Slate, maintenance workers—not corrections officers—actually made the fateful purchase of a synthetic sponge, which was highly flammable.)

The lack of doctors and nurses at executions isn't terribly surprising—killing someone is generally frowned upon in the medical community. It violates the Hippocratic Oath, the American Medical Association has stated that it goes against their code of ethics, and the American Nurses Association has issued a similar statement. Nonetheless, medical personnel do often participate in lethal injections, according to the Los Angeles Times. They're just not always the most reputable members of their professions.

One doctor named Alan Doerhoff famously got himself banned from Missouri's death row for sheer incompetence. He testified in court that his dyslexia interfered with his ability to read drug names, and that he "improvised" doses. But Doerhoff soon found himself supervising executions elsewhere. Documents uncovered by the LA Times in 2007 revealed that Doerhoff was overseeing lethal injections for the federal government, including the execution of Oklahoma City Federal Building bomber Timothy McVeigh.

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There's one much more specialized method for executing people: firing squad, which doesn't involve tricky drugs or circuits, just a blindfold and some rifles. But according to Dunham, this is where expertise comes in, because the squad is composed of trained marksmen among the corrections staff, not just any old guy with a gun hoping to hunt the most dangerous game. So again, there's never going to be an open call for executioners here like in Saudi Arabia.

There is one potential become-an-executioner-quick scheme in Utah, though, according to Dunham. "The jurisdiction in which the murder occurred gets asked if there are any law enforcement personnel in their jurisdiction who want to volunteer," he explained.

Broadly speaking, though, corrections officers are the ones who end up becoming executioners. State by state, eligibility for corrections officers vary slightly, but there are trends in execution-friendly states like Virginia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and, of course, Texas: There's a screening and interview process, followed by an academy training course that's typically about nine weeks long. Typically, to start the process, you have to be about 19, though there's no age requirement in Ohio. Corrections officers only need a high school diploma or a GED certificate. Virginia details the specific physical requirements involved in training, like a 51-meter sprint test. All of them require applicants to pass a drug test and background screenings of varying intensity, generally emphasizing that applicants be drug-free. The online list of requirements for Texas specifies, "You must never have been convicted of a drug-related offense."

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As for the fringe benefits of executing people, there aren't many. Givens told the Guardian that Virginia executioners got "$39,000 to $50,000" with benefits. Thompson confirmed this, saying, "All staff receive their regular pay, unless scheduling or training requires them to be paid overtime."

He was eager to warn anyone thinking about becoming an executioner that there are drawbacks. "All staff who volunteer to be a part of an execution feel the stress," he said, and pointed out that PTSD can reach all members of an execution team, no matter how indirect their involvement. Thompson was also concerned about stigma. In India, at the height of the caste system, executioners were considered Chandala, or untouchables, completely cast out from society. To some degree, he feels, that's still true today.

"There are risks that the societal perception of an 'executioner' as being some kind of freak, or alien, or person of some fundamentally undesirable character flaw, will continue to be perpetuated," Thompson said.

Capital punishment, he pointed out, is a system that makes everyone who votes for it an executioner. He said pushing the button is "just one of many functions that are required in the process of killing someone."

*Correction 10/02/2017: A previous version of this article said the Death Penalty Information Center advocated against capital punishment, which is inaccurate. We regret the error.

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