Former Executioner Speaks Out Against the Death Penalty

In a recent Washington Post article, Jerry Givens, who executed 37 people via the electric chair and 25 by lethal injection during his 17 years working as the chief executioner for the Virginia Department of Corrections, shares how his views on the death penalty have evolved over the years.

Executions were never an easy matter for Givens. “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.” But a tragic event helped him carry out the work. When Givens was 14, he was at a house party when a gunman burst in and fired randomly, killing a girl Givens had been trying to work up the courage to ask to dance with him. The incident left him with a belief that killers like that deserved to die, and he would recall the girl’s murder each time he had to prepare for an execution.

Givens’ started losing faith in the system later on with the case of death row inmate Earl Washington Jr., who was sentenced to death in 1984 in the rape and killing of a 19-year-old mother of three. Washington only had an IQ of about 69 and had admitted to the killing, but many of his answers didn’t match the evidence or facts of the case. Days before his execution, lawyers were able to obtain a stay based on doubts about his guilt. Years later in 1993, DNA proved that Washington was not the killer and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. After further testing, he was eventually granted a full pardon, and became Virginia’s first person exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Givens was troubled that he had gotten so close to executing Washington. “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row,” he said.

In 1999, Givens was charged with money laundering and lying to a federal grand jury about it. He maintains his innocence to this day, but was convicted and spent four years behind bars.  “This was God’s way of waking me up,” Givens said. During his time in prison, his Christian faith deepened, and he realized “what he had done as executioner was not compatible with Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness.” He could no longer support the death penalty, and said that God told him to share his story.

Givens got involved with Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) and became a board member of the organization in 2009. He has been speaking around the country about his opposition to the death penalty ever since. In 2010, he testified at a state legislative hearing on a bill that would expand the death penalty in Virginia to accomplices in murders. Given’s testimony helped to defeat the measure. “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.”

(Photo courtesy of Daily Life)

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