Former Virginia Executioner Now an Anti-Death Penalty Activist
Once Virginia’s chief executioner, Jerry Givens put 62 people to death over a 17-year period from 1982 to 1999. Then he had an epiphany that pushed him to use his experience to advocate against the death penalty.
Givens, 60, became a supporter of capital punishment at an early age. While attending a house party when he was 14, he was building up his courage to ask a girl to dance with him. A gunman looking for someone else at the party suddenly ran up the stairs, firing randomly and killing the girl. That incident infuriated Givens and solidified his belief that murderers deserve to die.
By 1974, Givens was working at a Philip Morris plant, but he lost his job after fighting with a co-worker. He applied for a position at the state penitentiary, and after two years as a guard a supervisor approached him about working on death row. He accepted.
His first execution occurred in 1984, and he felt those he put to death had asked for it. “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?” he asked.
The day before Givens’ first execution, the death row team began a standard 24-hour vigil. The goal, he said, was to ensure the condemned prisoner did not commit suicide before the state could kill him. The circumstances behind that execution confirmed Givens’ belief in the death penalty.
One of three brothers in a gang responsible for one of the bloodiest murder sprees in Virginia history plus a death row escape, Linwood Briley seemed a fitting example of why capital punishment was justified.
Before entering the death chamber, Briley asked to be baptized. He was taken to the prison’s chapel and Givens said he prayed alongside him. “We don’t know our day and time, but these guys do,” he said of prisoners on death row. “They can repent, this is the advantage they have.”
After Briley was put to death in the electric chair, other executions came in quick succession in the 1980s and 1990s. Virginia was second only to Texas in the number of executions performed while Givens was the state’s chief executioner.
He executed Briley’s brother, James, in 1985, and Syvasky Poyner, who had killed five women over an 11-day crime spree, in 1993. Despite his certainty in the righteousness of capital punishment, Givens still had to deal with his emotions when putting people to death.
“You are not going to feel happy,” he said. “You feel for the condemned man’s family and the victim’s family. You have two sets of families that are losing someone.”
The epiphany that led Givens to become an activist against the death penalty came in two phases. The first involved an exoneration. Earl Washington, Jr. was scheduled to die in Virginia’s electric chair in 1995. Just days before his execution date, his attorneys were able to secure a stay based on doubts about his guilt. Although he had admitted to raping and killing a 19-year-old woman, Washington, who had an IQ of about 69, gave answers that were inconsistent with evidence in the case.
DNA tests strongly indicated that Washington was not the killer. His sentence was commuted to life in prison by then-Governor L. Douglas Wilder. Subsequent DNA testing with more advanced techniques cleared Washington, and he eventually received an absolute pardon.
That disturbed Givens. “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row,” he said.
The DNA testing “was a scientific process totally outside the system that said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy,’” stated Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and an opponent of capital punishment. “The fact that you had the entirely wrong person was a revelation to some people.”
According to the Innocence Project, there have been 325 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, in both capital and non-capital cases, including 15 in Virginia.
The second phase of Givens’ epiphany began in 1999. At that time he had been promoted to the rank of captain, had raised a family and was a high school football assistant coach. While he was still the state’s chief executioner, prosecutors claimed he was also conspiring with a friend to launder drug money. Givens maintained his innocence but was convicted and sent to prison for four years, which solidified his distrust in the criminal justice system.
“This was God’s way of waking me up,” he stated.
As he walked on the prison yard, Givens said God asked him if he would have executed Jesus if Jesus were on death row, and Givens realized he could no longer support the death penalty.
After a meeting with Jonathan Sheldon, an attorney and former executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Givens began attending VADP meetings and became a board member in 2009.
His work in giving anti-capital punishment speeches across the country hit its high point at a hearing on a 2010 bill to expand Virginia’s death penalty to include accomplices to murder. “It was so dramatic, you could hear a pin drop,” said state Senator J. Chapman Petersen. “No one knew who he was, and then he announced he had been the state’s chief executioner, and gave an emotional and raw speech. It was something out of Dickens.”
Givens also testified on January 24, 2014 against a bill (SB607) to restore the electric chair as Virginia’s default method of execution – a response to the increasing difficulty in obtaining lethal injection drugs. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.46]. After hearing his testimony, which included descriptions of how electrocution left prisoners’ bodies with burns and blisters, a legislative committee did not pass the bill, deadlocking on a tied vote.
Givens continues to wonder if any of the people he executed were innocent. “The only thing I can do is pray to God to forgive me if I did,” he said, “but I do know this – I will never do it again.”
Meanwhile, the machinery of death grinds on; Virginia has executed 110 people since 1982, and eight prisoners were on the state’s death row as of February 2015.
Sources: The Washington Post, http://hamptonroads.com, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
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