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Jerry Givens, Virginia executioner turned death-penalty opponent, dies at 67 of coronavirus

Jerry Givens was Virginia’s chief executioner before he became an activist against the death penalty. He also mentored young men active in sports.
Jerry Givens was Virginia’s chief executioner before he became an activist against the death penalty. He also mentored young men active in sports. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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This story is part of “Faces of the dead,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus.

Most of his executions began the same way, with a haircut and a hand placed on the head of the condemned. Then Jerry Givens prayed — for the prisoner and his family; for the inmate’s victims and their loved ones — and strapped the incarcerated person into Virginia’s electric chair.

Thirty-seven times, he pushed a button that took their lives and left him shaken. Twenty-five times, he administered a lethal injection that he found more upsetting still, as he pushed a relatively slow-acting, three-drug combination through a syringe.

For 17 years, Mr. Givens led the second-busiest execution team in the country, presiding over 62 executions in all, more than any state but Texas. The death certificate for each executed inmate cited the cause of death as “homicide.” But Mr. Givens was, as he put it, “not a natural killer.”

Inspired in part by the case of an innocent man he nearly executed, and by his own prayer-filled stint behind bars, Mr. Givens ultimately turned against capital punishment, emerging as one of the country’s most prominent opponents of the death penalty. He organized protests, testified before lawmakers and met with the family members of incarcerated people and their victims, as well as with corrections officers whom he urged not to perform executions.

He was 67 when he died April 13 at a hospital in Richmond, according to a niece and family representative, Valerie Travers. The cause was complications of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Mr. Givens had worked as a Virginia prison guard before becoming the commonwealth’s chief executioner in 1982, a process that forced him to transform himself from someone who focused on “saving lives,” in his telling, to someone who took a life at the order of a judge. In compliance with a state execution law and an oath he took with colleagues on the “death team,” he never told friends or family about his work until his corrections career ended in 1999.

[Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty]

“He was one of the very few executioners who was willing to speak publicly about his experience,” said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP), “and how that experience changed him over time so that he became a passionate critic and opponent of the death penalty.”

Mr. Givens recalled witnessing violence as a teenager, watching one day as a young woman was gunned down randomly at a party in his Richmond neighborhood, moments before he planned to ask her to dance. For years, he believed that her killer — and others like him — deserved nothing less than the death penalty.

He went on to execute Virginia prisoners such as Linwood and James D. Briley, brothers whose gang was responsible for at least 11 killings, and Syvasky Poyner, who killed five women during an 11-day crime rampage. Each time he pushed the button or wielded the syringe, Mr. Givens thought back to the killing he saw in his youth, steeling himself for work. Execution left him in a daze, he said.

“You are not going to feel happy,” Mr. Givens told The Washington Post in 2013. “You feel for the condemned man’s family and the victim’s family. You have two sets of families that are losing someone.”

In 1985, Mr. Givens was scheduled to execute Earl Washington Jr., who had confessed to raping and killing a 19-year-old mother of three. Washington had been classified as intellectually disabled, and days before his planned killing, lawyers secured a stay. He ultimately became the first person on Virginia’s death row to be exonerated by DNA testing — paving the way for additional pardons and rocking Mr. Givens’s faith in the justice system.

“God took Earl Washington off death row and freed him,” he later told Richmond magazine. “I was doing so many executions at the time, I was sort of addicted to executing, not that I enjoyed it, but you get into a certain mindset. I’m a husband and a father at home. I’m a church attender. . . . I did not want to wear the fact that I executed an innocent man for the rest of my life, and God answered my prayers.”

“He answered them by taking me to prison and taking Earl Washington out.”

Mr. Givens was convicted of perjury and money laundering in 1999, after prosecutors said he bought a car with a friend using money that Mr. Givens knew came from drug dealing. He maintained his innocence but spent four years in prison, reading the Bible and thinking about Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness, and coming to the realization that the death penalty was unethical.

“This was God’s way of waking me up,” he told The Post.

He later worked with groups such as VADP, where he was a board member, and Death Penalty Action, where he served on the board of advisers and spoke with correctional officers whenever possible, according to co-director Abraham J. Bonowitz.

“Be careful about the burden you’re taking on,” Mr. Givens would say, according to Bonowitz. “You don’t have to do this. I know, I’ve done it, and I’m warning you, this will be a lifelong burden.”

Mr. Givens addressed an international audience in Brussels last year at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty. As part of his statehouse activism, he also testified at a Virginia legislative hearing in 2010; he was credited with helping defeat a bill that would have expanded the death penalty to accomplices in murders.

“It was so dramatic, you could have heard a pin drop,” Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) told The Post in 2013. “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.”

“The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it,” Mr. Givens said after his testimony, describing the toll incurred by workers on death row. “The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it.”

The youngest of four children, Jerry Bronson Givens was born in Richmond on Dec. 3, 1952, and grew up in the Creighton Court housing complex. His mother worked at a pancake restaurant, and his father pressed clothes at a dry-cleaning firm.

Mr. Givens starred on the high school football team and received an athletic scholarship to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, according to Travers, his niece. She said he dropped out after an injury kept him off the field, and he later volunteered as a coach with youth football teams in the Richmond area.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Givens worked at a Philip Morris tobacco plant, where he reportedly lost his job after fighting with a co-worker. A friend suggested that he apply for a job at the state penitentiary if he didn’t want to get sent there himself, and Mr. Givens was soon hired as a guard. He later published a memoir about his experiences, “Another Day Is Not Promised” (2012), which took its title from a line he used with the condemned.

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

Survivors include his wife of 46 years, the former Sadie Travers, of Richmond; his mother, the former Lillian Nickens, of Richmond; two stepsons, Terence Travers of Henrico County, Va., and Devry Travers of Woodbridge, Va.; two sisters; a brother; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

After his release from prison, Mr. Givens supported himself by driving trucks for a firm that installed and repaired highway guardrails. “I’m no longer taking lives,” he told Richmond magazine. “I’m putting up equipment that will save lives. See? This is how God works.”

Read more:

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Despite Trump’s vow to revive the death penalty, support for capital punishment shrank in 2019

Justice Department plans to restart capital punishment after long hiatus