For 17 years, Jerry Givens was an executioner who operated the electric chair in Virginia that sent scores of people to their deaths. Now, Givens is an impassioned opponent of capital punishment.
After years of being the prison official who made sure that Virginia inmates convicted of capital crimes were executed, Givens now declares that the death penalty contradicts his religious principles. In his years working the Virginia prison system, he was the executioner who put 62 people to death.
Givens’ convictions about the death penalty changed after a series of events that would forever alter his perspective. In one case, he came within hours of putting to death a man who was proven to be innocent, a close call that shook his confidence in the morality of the death penalty. In a second defining experience, Givens was convicted and incarcerated for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
“Times have changed and we’re in a modern society and we shouldn’t continue doing the same things we did in the 1600s, when we were executing people,” Givens said, in an interview with BET.com. “I learned that executing people costs, in terms of money and in terms of the emotional impact on people.”
He added: “If I had my way, they would abolish the death penalty. I would rather see more money spent on education and crime prevention.“
A onetime worker in a tobacco factory, Givens began working as a correctional officer. He was later asked to join the prison's “Execution Team.” He explained that he was able to fortify himself emotionally for the work of execution by recalling when, as a teenager, he witnessed the shooting of a teenage girl when a man started shooting randomly during a party.
“It became sort of routine,” he said of his execution duties. “It was never something I looked forward to; I never enjoyed it. But you get accustomed to it.”
In 1999, Givens was convicted of money laundering and giving false statements to a federal grand jury. The prosecutors contended that he and a friend purchased an automobile with full knowledge that the funds came from the sale of drugs. Givens, who was forced to resign from his prison work, has maintained his innocence.
The four years he spent in jail, he said, developed his distrust of the legal system. It also was a period when he began reading the bible fervently. He concluded that his work on the “Execution Team” was inconsistent with the Christian ethic he was now committed to.
Now, at age 62, Givens works as a truck driver and lives in the Richmond area. He tours the country speaking about his opposition to the death penalty and calls on legislatures to abolish it. He is also on the board of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which is a statewide citizens’ organization dedicated to educating the public about other ways to punish offenders.
“I speak to a lot of groups now,” he said. “God told me to go out and talk to the world. I didn’t think I could do it. But he provided me with everything I needed to do it. I don’t question it now. Wherever he wants me to go, I go.”
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(Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)