Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty

As an executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Jerry Givens executed 62 people. Now he’s lobbying and praying for the end of the death penalty in Virginia. (The Fold/The Washington Post)
February 10, 2013

Jerry Givens executed 62 people.

His routine and conviction never wavered. He’d shave the person’s head, lay his hand on the bald pate and ask for God’s forgiveness for the condemned. Then, he would strap the person into Virginia’s electric chair.

Givens was the state’s chief executioner for 17 years — at a time when the commonwealth put more people to death than any state besides Texas.

“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?” Givens asked. “I considered it suicide.”

As Virginia executed its 110th person in the modern era last month, Givens prayed for the man, but also for an end to the death penalty. Since leaving his job in 1999, Givens has become one of the state’s most visible — and unlikely — opponents of capital punishment.

His evolution underscores that of Virginia itself and the nation. Although polls show that the majority of state residents still support the death penalty, Virginia has experienced a sea change on capital punishment in recent years that is part of a national trend.

The state has had fewer death sentences over the past five years than any period since the 1970s. Robert Gleason, who was put to death Jan. 16, was the first execution in a year and a half. As recently as 1999, the state put 13 to death in a single year.

Nationwide, the number of death sentences was at record lows in 2011 and 2012, down 75 percent since 1996, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Five states have outlawed capital punishment in the past five years, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) affirmed plans to push for a moratorium there. Gallup polls show support for capital punishment ebbing.

Givens’s improbable journey to the death chamber and back did not come easily or quickly for the 60-year-old from Richmond. A searing murder spurred his interest in the work, but it was the innocent life he nearly took that led him to question the system. And he was changed for good when he found himself behind bars.

His story helps explain how a state closely associated with the death penalty for decades has entered a new era.

“From the 62 lives I took, I learned a lot,” Givens said.

The first execution

Friends and strangers regularly ask Givens the essential question: What is it like to take another man’s life? In answering, he vividly recalls his first execution, in 1984.

That it involved one of America’s most notorious killers helped solidify Givens’s feelings then that the death penalty was just.

Linwood Briley was one of three brothers in a gang responsible for one of the bloodiest murder sprees — and death row escapes — in state history.

The day before Briley’s execution, Givens said, the death row team began a standard 24-hour vigil, monitoring Briley at the now-shuttered Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. The goal, as Givens put it, was to keep the condemned from killing himself before the state could.

Nevertheless, the first execution took a toll. Givens said the most difficult part of that execution — or any other — was something he called the “transformation.”

Givens worked as a prison guard “saving lives” most of the time, as he put it, but when he took on the role of executioner, he had to become a killer.

Before Briley was put to death, he asked to be baptized, Givens said. The death team took him to the penitentiary’s chapel, and Givens prayed alongside the man whose life he would soon end.

“We don’t know our day and time, but these guys do,” Givens said of death row inmates. “They can repent. This is the advantage they have.”

The team moved Briley to the death chamber, and he was strapped in the electric chair. Givens took up a position along a wall outside, where the button was located. He could see Briley’s back through a small window.

At these moments, Givens said, he would empty his mind to avoid fear, insecurities or regret. He was solely focused on the grisly mechanics of electrocution.

“You are concentrating on the body itself,” he said. “With that much electricity, you are going to get burning and smoke. You want to make sure the current is right.”

At 11 p.m. Oct. 12, 1984, Givens pushed the button. He saw Briley’s body spasm through the window. And then it was over. He had taken his first life.

Inevitably, Givens said the emotion of an execution would come flooding back.

“You are not going to feel happy,” Givens 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 chamber and back

Givens grew up in the Creighton Court housing complex in Richmond, where he also graduated from high school in the early 1970s. By 1974, he had gotten a job at a Philip Morris plant and then lost it after fighting with a co-worker.

He recalled someone telling him that he should apply for a job at the state penitentiary before he got sent there. Givens did just that.

After two years as a prison guard, he said, a supervisor approached him about working on death row. He would not be paid extra, but he accepted the job. The deciding factor, he said, was an event that marked him early in life.

When he was 14, Givens said, he was at a house party in Creighton Court. He spied a girl next to a window, and as he was trying to get up the confidence to ask her to dance, a gunman burst up a flight of stairs.

The man was looking for someone at the party, but he fired randomly and killed the girl.

Givens was furious. The incident left him with a firm conviction: Killers such as that shooter deserved to die.

In the years ahead, Givens said, he would recall the girl’s shooting each time he had to prepare for an execution. It was a touchstone that helped him carry out the grim work of the death chamber.

After Briley, the executions would come in quicker succession through the 1980s and 1990s. Givens executed Linwood Briley’s brother James in 1985. In 1993, it was Syvasky Poyner, who killed five women during an 11-day spree in southeast Virginia, and David Mark Pruett, who admitted to raping and killing his best friend’s wife.

Ultimately, though, it was a man he didn’t execute who would make the biggest impression. Earl Washington Jr. was sentenced to death in 1984 in the rape and killing of a 19-year-old mother of three in Culpeper.

Washington, who has an IQ of about 69, admitted to the killing, although many of his answers were inconsistent with the facts of the case. Just days before his scheduled execution in 1985, lawyers secured a stay based on doubts about his guilt.

In 1993, DNA tests provided strong evidence that Washington was not the killer. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) commuted his sentence to life in prison. After testing with a more advanced forensic science, Washington was cleared and eventually granted an absolute pardon, making him the first person on Virginia’s death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

It was a landmark moment locally and nationally. The case was among the first in a wave of exonerations based on post-conviction DNA testing. There have been 302 such cases across the nation, including 18 death row inmates, according to the Innocence Project.

Experts and opponents of the death penalty say the exonerations have been a key factor in the recent decline in death sentences in Virginia and elsewhere. They say judges and juries have become more sophisticated about how the system can fail and therefore more leery of applying a penalty that cannot be reversed.

The DNA testing “was a scientific process totally outside the system that said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy,’ ” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and an opponent of the death penalty. “The fact that you had the entirely wrong person was a revelation to some people.”

The man who would have been Washington’s executioner was one of them. Givens said the case shook his faith in the justice system. He came within days of putting an innocent man to death.

“If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row,” Givens said.

From executioner to inmate

Despite his growing reservations, Givens continued to work as Virginia’s chief executioner through the late 1990s. He had risen to the rank of captain in the Department of Corrections, raised a family and become an assistant football coach at a Richmond area high school.

But then it fell apart. Givens was charged with money laundering and lying to a federal grand jury about it in 1999. Prosecutors said Givens and an old friend from Creighton Court purchased a car together using proceeds Givens knew came from drug dealing. Givens was put on trial.

“There’s a fine line between lawfulness and unlawfulness,” the U.S. attorney reportedly told the jury in the case. “There are a lot of good things about Jerry Givens. He is by no means the worst criminal any of us will ever meet, but he did cross the line.”

Givens maintains his innocence, but he was convicted and forced to resign from the Department of Corrections. His distrust of the justice system was cemented.

The prison guard became an inmate and spent four years behind bars.

“This was God’s way of waking me up,” Givens said.

His incarceration gave him time to think and deepened his Baptist faith. He said he read the Bible more often — the story of Jesus’s crucifixion held a lot for a man who had spent his adult life putting people to death.

Givens said a pivotal moment came one day as he was walking around the prison track, where he often talked with God. He said God asked him a thorny question: Would Givens have executed His son if He were on death row?

Givens said he could give only one reply: No, because Jesus was the son of God. He said he realized what he had done as executioner was not compatible with Jesus’s teachings of forgiveness. He realized that he could no longer support the death penalty. He said God told him to share his story.

Evelyn Givens said she thought her brother’s change was possibly the result of guilt about what he had done and a desire to spare others from “walking in his shoes.”

“He doesn’t want anyone else to feel what he felt,” she said.

After he was released from prison in 2004, he found work as a truck driver. Jonathan Sheldon, a lawyer and former executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP), recalls hearing about Givens through a mutual acquaintance.

They agreed to meet at a Burger King off Interstate 95 outside Richmond. The activist and the former chief executioner sat across from each other, talking about the death penalty.

“It was quite a funny meeting,” Sheldon said.

It also planted a seed that would grow in the coming years.

Givens started attending VADP meetings and joined the board about 2009. He began giving speeches across the country about his experiences as chief executioner and his newfound opposition to the death penalty.

The work hit a high point in 2010, when he testified at a state legislative hearing on a bill that would expand the death penalty to accomplices in murders. Givens’s emotional testimony about the impact of death row work helped defeat it.

“The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it,” Givens said afterward. “The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it.”

Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Peterson (D-Fairfax) said it was a key moment.

“It was so dramatic, you could have heard a pin drop,” Peterson said. “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.”

All the while, Virginia was changing as well.

David Bruck, a law professor at Washington and Lee University’s law school and an opponent of capital punishment, said a number of other factors have contributed to the decline in use of the death penalty in Virginia.

Like most states, Virginia has enacted sentences of life without parole, giving juries and prosecutors an alternative. The creation of the state’s capital public defender system has given those facing the death sentence better representation.

Bruck also said the state’s prosecutors, who are elected in Virginia, feel less public pressure to pursue the death penalty than in years past because it has faded as a key political issue.

“Our death sentencing rate is becoming similar to states like Colorado that have the death sentence on the books but hardly use it,” Bruck said.

That’s good news to someone such as Givens. He said he has gained a measure of peace through his new calling. He wrote a book about his experiences, which was released last year.

Nevertheless, he still wonders whether there were any innocents among the 37 people he executed via the electric chair and the 25 by lethal injection. The man who prayed for the forgiveness of each of the condemned said he may need it himself.

“The only thing I can do is pray to God to forgive me if I did,” Givens said. “But I do know this — I will never do it again.”

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