Jerry Givens has carried out the deaths of 62 men, yet walks around a free man.
From 1984 until 1999, this soft-spoken man, living in eastern Henrico County, was Virginia’s official executioner. He performed his duty in anonymity, never telling his friends, family or even his wife, in compliance with the state’s original execution law and an oath of secrecy he and eight of his fellow corrections officers took in 1982 as its first “death team.”
“I was the executioner, maybe even America’s first black executioner,” Givens says. “I was a good executioner. I was upholding the law. The responsibility was on the inmate. You make bad choices, you came to me.”
Givens before church on a recent Sunday. (Photo by Chet Strange)
It has been 17 years since Givens last carried out an execution order, but these are the days of constant reminders of what he used to do and once believed. Condemned killer Ricky Gray, convicted of the brutal 2006 slaying of seven people, including a well-known Richmond family, won a stay of last month’s scheduled execution while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether it will hear his case. During the recent session, the General Assembly passed a bill making the electric chair the alternative to lethal injection in the event that the necessary drugs were unavailable.
Also, in February, Pope Francis called for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty during the Catholic Church’s current Holy Year, which ends in November.
For nearly two decades, Givens stood not only behind an execution chamber partition to put men to death, but also the mental wall he erected to perform that job — one for which he volunteered in the belief that the commonwealth of Virginia was “doing the right thing by executing these guys for the types of crimes they committed.”
But, in 1999, the man who once executed prisoners became one himself. His experience — he maintains he was wrongfully convicted — fed his growing doubts about use of the death penalty. He did not want to think he might have executed an innocent man. Upon his release, almost four years later, he became the first executioner in the country to speak out against the death penalty and “an inspiration to all death penalty abolitionists,” says Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
“I wasn’t just for the death penalty,” Givens says. “I was the one who carried it out. So you cannot say that I am not sincere. Those of you who want the death penalty, I carried it out for you. But it took 62 executions for me to see this wasn’t the right thing to do. But [Virginia is] still doing the same thing. This is not the solution to our problem.
“Listen to me. Because I did it.”
Givens, 62, was born in Richmond and grew up a scrapper in Creighton Court, playing football for Kennedy High School. His mother raised him and his three siblings. His father left and got into drugs, which eventually killed him, Givens says.
After graduation in 1972, he worked for a time at Philip Morris as a production worker, but left that to take a correctional officer position at the Virginia State Penitentiary in downtown Richmond. It was 1974, and Virginia was still reeling from legal challenges resulting from the 1968 inmate sit-down strike that ultimately reformed treatment and living conditions. The state pen, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and opened in 1800, was a tough place to work, and Givens says that after he decked an inmate who took a swing at him, he found himself with a nickname: “Stun Gun Givens.”
Left: Givens in 1976 at the state pen; Right: Givens, in the mid-’70s, with a fellow corrections officer. (Photos courtesy of Jerry Givens)
Virginia has permitted capital punishment since its earliest days. In 1608, George Kendall was shot in Jamestown for espionage. Three hundred years later, in 1908, the General Assembly centralized executions at the state pen, thus eliminating the “carnivals of death” that frequently accompanied public hangings. It also passed legislation that changed the method of execution to electrocution.
Virginia stopped executions in 1962 and then reinstated them in 1976, a period during which the nation was wrestling with the constitutionality of the death penalty and arbitrariness in sentencing.
A year later, in 1977, one of Givens’ supervisors approached him and asked if he would like to volunteer for execution duty as a member of the newly formed “death team.”
“He said, ‘Give it some thought,’ and I gave it a whole lot of thought,” Givens says. “I thought, ‘Why did he come to me? Why me of all people?’ But I also had some flashbacks to what I saw as a teenager.”
When he was 14, he says, he went to a neighborhood house party and, while there, a young woman was shot and killed.
“So, I said to myself, ‘A person has to be stupid, downright stupid to go out there and kill someone knowing that Virginia has the death penalty. Why would you take someone’s life, knowing you could be executed? You might as well commit suicide. I put a lot of blame on the condemned.”
He told the supervisor he would serve as a volunteer on the death team.
“I didn’t know who else he’d asked, but me and eight other guys met one Friday evening in that cold east basement of building “A”, where the old electric chair was. We agreed to take the job, and also agreed that what was said down there, stayed down there.”
Corrections personnel unpacked and rebuilt the original inmate-constructed oak electric chair, and five years later, in 1982, put it to use.
The electric chair, dubbed “Old Sparky” in the old state pen’s death chamber. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Virginia, records of the Virginia Penitentiary).
Frank Coppola was the first prisoner brought to “A” basement. He’d spent four years on death row. Coppola was a high school basketball star, a former Catholic seminarian and an ex-Portsmouth police officer. On April 22, 1978, he, Joseph Miltier and Donna Mills killed Muriel Hatchell in a home robbery by beating her head against the floor. Miltier and Mills received life sentences. The Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for Coppola because of the “atrociousness” of the crime.
Givens was an alternate executioner for Coppola, and he recalls how nervous he and the team were. “We had not had an execution in 20 years. We hadn’t practiced on a real person, of course, and that basement was hot and covered wall to wall with people.”
Despite the heat and anxiety, he remembers Coppola was the coolest thing in the room. Two years later, upon the chief executioner’s retirement, Givens moved into the job he would perform for the next 15 years. His first execution was one of the most feared criminals in Richmond’s history: Linwood Briley.
Briley, along with his brothers, James and Anthony, killed at least 12 people in the Richmond area from 1971 to 1979. In 1984, he and five others staged the largest death row breakout in history from Mecklenburg Correctional Facility. All six were soon recaptured.
By law, prisoners condemned to death arrived at the penitentiary 15 days prior to their execution date. After a complete physical, the prisoner spends the next two weeks being prepped by the death row team to die.
“We prepared that man for his last day on earth,” Givens explains. “[That] was the key. That process was slow to us, but it was fast to him, because he was counting down the days. And on that last day, 99 percent of them were ready.”
Most of them, he says, were exhausted by the stress of losing appeal after appeal, and were already “emotionally dead.”
“Showing up just triggered their mind into getting ready to die.”
He recalls that only one prisoner did not seem to grasp his fate — Morris Mason, executed June 25, 1985, for raping and murdering an elderly woman in Northampton County. “Guys like that, something is wrong with their mind,” Givens says, shaking his head. “He ordered McDonald’s [for his last meal] and he ate so much he said, ‘Givens, I can’t eat all this, put it in the freezer for tomorrow.’ He was not kidding or being sarcastic; I knew that he wasn’t ready.”
Another condemned man, Willie Jones, “asked if he could lean down and kiss the chair, so we let him,” Givens says. “Charles Stamper was confined to a wheelchair, so he had to be lifted from the wheelchair and placed in the electric chair. And he was perfectly calm.”
Givens says he never saw the condemned “as the monster society made him out to be. Maybe it was because he realized this was the last of everything, and he wanted to be on his best behavior. I could not treat him like a monster. I had to treat him like a human being.”
The Briley execution was nerve-racking, he says, not simply because it was his first, but because high-profile executions came with a lot of publicity. Givens worried that something would go wrong.
Givens remembers telling Briley, as he would tell all those he was preparing to execute, that he should not get his hopes up about a reprieve. He says he asked Briley if he wanted to pray with him as he prepped him. Though Briley had been baptized in the penitentiary chapel a few days earlier, he didn’t respond. Givens says he prayed, anyway. “I prayed to forgive the condemned man and for God to bless the victim’s family. I said a prayer for all people, and prayed that things would be better for [the prisoner].”
Linwood Briley was “very, very calm,” witnesses at the time reported. His last words were that he was not guilty.
Six months later, his brother, James, met the same fate. Richmond’s then-Mayor Roy West, who witnessed both executions, said at the time that he would never forget the pictures of the brothers’ victims. “The victims looked like animals when they got through with them,” he told the Washington Post in April 1985. “The gruesomeness of an execution doesn’t even compare. I felt like there had to be some sort of accounting. I felt like the citizens of Richmond should be represented.”
Preparing a man to die is an intimate act. Not only is there the 15 days of mental preparation, of talking or counseling inmates, but also the physical preparation. The shaving of the inmate’s head and right lower leg. The cinching of straps across chest, wrists and ankles. The placement of electrodes upon the bare skin of the ankle.
A natural sea sponge soaked in brine and strapped inside a flexible headpiece is placed on top of the head and secured with a chin strap. Finally, the prisoner’s face is covered by a mask with the nose cut out.
Givens says that rarely were any words exchanged during this process. He would await the order from the governor to proceed, step behind a partition just behind the chair and, upon the governor’s go-ahead, open the current.
“Electricity comes down through the headpiece, through the brain, circles the heart and comes out the leg,” Givens explains. “Wherever electricity goes in, it has to come out.”
There was no pulling a lever, as is popularly believed, he says.
“I pushed a button. There was a timer, and the charge was for 45 seconds. I started out with about 2,300 volts and 4 amps, then ran it down to 2, because after 35 or 45 seconds of that first hot cycle, he’s dead … There’s enough there to kill a horse during that first cycle.”
Givens says he simply performed his job, remaining emotionally detached. “I wasn’t really thinking anything,” he says. The partition separated executioner from condemned. Givens could only see the back of a prisoner and the faces of the witnesses. Sometimes, he says, he could judge the progress of the execution by their facial expressions.
The first cycle stops the heart. The second causes brain death. Five minutes pass. A doctor checks for a heartbeat. Death is declared.
“The death team was very professional and very well prepared,” says Danny Link, a retired Department of Corrections consultant. “They rehearsed the execution so that there were no surprises. They practiced so much, and the inmates were so well-prepared, the team got really good at what they were doing, like they were just going to a job.”
Execute man after man and you become an expert. Givens says he could judge based on height, weight and build how much voltage was required to put prisoners to death quickly while causing as little physical damage as possible.
“I wanted a perfect execution,” he says of the responsibility he felt, “because if the machine acted bad or the body caught on fire it would come back on me.”
Until the end of 1990, all the executions took place in the state pen. The property, bounded by Belvidere, Spring, Second and Byrd streets, was purchased by the Ethyl Corp. (now New Market Corp.), and the penitentiary demolished. The electric chair was moved to Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.
The old state pen. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Virginia, records of Virginia Penitentiary)
Givens performed 25 executions with the electric chair, becoming so adept at his job that Gov. L. Douglas Wilder once sent him to Florida to determine what had gone wrong during that state’s nightmarish execution of Pedro Medina. A witness wrote that during the first cycle of Medina’s execution “foot-long flames shot from the mask covering his head.”
Virginia had an identical system to Florida’s, and wanted to learn from its mistake. Givens discovered corrections officers there had used a blue synthetic sponge in the headpiece rather than a natural sea sponge, causing the rubber to catch on fire.
In 1994, Virginia changed its method of execution to lethal injection, though the condemned could still choose electrocution. Lethal injection’s three-drug protocol consisted of pentobarbital, which rendered the inmate unconscious; rocuronium bromide, which caused paralysis; and, finally, potassium chloride, which stopped the heart.
The inmate is led into the execution chamber, surrounded by four correctional officers. He lies on the table and is strapped down by the officers. Medical staff insert IVs into each arm. The IV lines are fished through holes in a curtain behind the table.
The state’s first execution by injection was in 1995. Givens says he found it to be a much more unsettling experience, though he would carry out 36 more.
Unlike the electric chair, where “it’s a button you push once and then the machine runs by itself,” Givens pushed the drugs through a syringe from behind the curtain.
“I had this syringe in my hand, and [I was] pushing the chemicals into that man’s arm, and I started to feel more [emotionally] attached than I did just pushing that button,” he says. “I could actually see the chemical going down the line and into the arm and see the effects of it.”
Givens had other concerns. He was worried about exposure to HIV-infected blood should an inmate somehow manage to rip out an IV. And, he says, “many of these prisoners were drug users, so if they couldn’t find a vein, they had to do a cut-down – open his arm to find a vein. I wasn’t qualified to do that. A doctor won’t do it, as it is against their code of ethics.”
Finding a vein, Givens says, would fall to an administrator with some medical experience.
But, even with those reservations, it was Earl Washington who made Givens rethink everything he once believed.
“When I was the executioner, I asked God, ‘Please don’t allow me to execute an innocent man,’” Givens says. “God brought Earl Washington right to the end of the line.”
Washington was a mentally disabled black man, convicted of rape and murder, who spent 16 years in prison, including nine years on Virginia’s death row. In 1993, one week from his scheduled execution, DNA evidence exonerated him. At the time, Virginia law allowed new evidence only if it was introduced within 21 days of sentencing. So, even though cleared of the crime, Washington’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. He eventually was released.
“God took Earl Washington off death row and freed him,” Givens says. “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 sing in the choir. I loved God. 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.”
Jerry Givens, present day. (Photo by Chet Strange)
In 1999, Givens was called before a grand jury about receiving money for his truck from a former Creighton Court friend named Sylvester Booker, who had a previous drug dealing conviction. The deal involved Booker paying $10,000 cash for the vehicle Givens had just purchased. Givens says that while he knew Booker had done some time for drug dealing, he’d heard he was clean and out of the life. The jury didn’t buy that and found Givens guilty of one count of money laundering and three counts of perjury. He was sentenced to 57 months at a medium-security federal facility in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He appealed his conviction in 2000, but it was denied in 2001.
“My case was ludicrous and, as of this day, I am still not guilty,” Givens says. “I blame myself though. I take full responsibility. … This is how God removed me from a situation I could not on my own get out of. I once told God that after I do 100 executions I was going to stop, but God said, ‘No, I’m going to stop you now.’ ”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch covered his case, and included the fact that Givens “carried out execution orders for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Givens had to tell his wife and two children about what he did.
“She knew I worked death row, but she didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “Part of the reason I didn’t tell her was because I took an oath and the secret would have been told. But I also knew the type of person she is. She would have to carry the type of things I carried.
“So, I told her, ‘Sweetheart, people had to make a lot of bad choices to get to me.’”
The news came as a shock to the whole family, says Evelyn Givens, Jerry’s younger sister. The immediate concern, she says, was for his safety and that of the family.
“He could have executed someone’s father, brother and now people know and his life is on the line,” she says.
She says she knew he worked on death row, but had “no clue” that he was the state’s chief executioner. The news was hard to take, she says. “It hurt me because I’m against the death penalty. My whole family is. I tried to blot it out of my mind. I tried not to think about it, but sometimes I would, and I’d think, ‘Oh, he killed 62 people.’
“He said it was his job and, you know, you just don’t know what someone else’s path is like unless your foot is in their shoe. … I think he regretted it. I think he felt some kind of way about it. I also wondered how it might affect his mind to keep something like that locked up inside …
“He had to have God in his life for support mentally, physically and emotionally, because that has to be a stressful thing. You see it on TV, you see the families of those executed and you say to yourself, ‘Oh, I was the one who contributed to that. I was the one who carried out the execution.’ Do you go to God and say ‘God forgive me? ’ And if God can forgive you, then you have to forgive yourself.”
She says that everyone who was on the death team played a role in the execution, and her brother, to this day, has kept his oath, never revealing who they were and what roles they played.
Givens served 44 months, and by the time he got out in January 2004, he says, he no longer believed that those who ended up on death row always did so as a result of a series of bad choices. DNA testing had cleared too many innocent men.
“It just didn’t hold water anymore,” he says. “We had been executing so many people, it almost seemed random … we have had 156 people exonerated from death row nationwide since 1973. Obviously something is wrong with our system.”
Questions of innocence, in fact, surround the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell, whose execution order Givens carried out in 1997. O’Dell was convicted on blood evidence and the word of a jailhouse snitch, but he protested he was innocent and his appeals reached the Supreme Court. Even after his death, questions persisted, but the state repeatedly rebuffed attempts to gain access to the evidence in his case. In March 2000, the last of the DNA evidence in his case was burned as required by state law.
Givens says he only became aware of the questions around O’Dell’s case after his execution, but Washington’s exoneration “put into doubt the executions of everyone else who said they were innocent. Had I known then what I know now, I would not have volunteered.”
After being on both sides of the prison cell doors, Givens insists that life in prison is greater punishment than the death penalty because, as others have argued, death by execution comes quickly. “[The prisoner] is dying every day,” he says. “The only thing he can look forward to is death.”
Givens’ friend, and fellow church member, Ron Lanier, says that he wondered about the impact of the job on Givens, whom he describes as a “perfect gentleman.”
“He being the obedient person that he is, I took it that that was his job and that’s what was expected of him,” Lanier says. “[But] to be really in there and to see firsthand what goes on, it has to do something to you.”
It did, Givens says. “It helped me in a way. It showed me that none of us is exempt from death, and, at any given day, any given time, it could happen and we need to stay right and we need to stay ready all the time.
“When we say, ‘death,’ we put a period on it. But it is the beginning of life to come. What I came to see was that capital punishment was nothing more than man’s punishment. Man using death to punish man for revenge. And that is not for man … We live on God’s earth and we can’t do anything about it unless He calls us home.”
A few months after his release from prison, Givens met with Jonathan Sheldon, the former president of the board of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He decided to go public with his conversion. Givens quickly became something of a media sensation among anti-death penalty groups around the world. Television stations, documentary filmmakers, media outlets and other organizations have sought him out. He has traveled to France, Spain and Australia, as a guest of groups that want to hear both about his work as an executioner and of his turn against the death penalty.
While groups often pay him to speak, he now makes his living driving a truck for a company that installs guardrails along the interstate highways. He leaves at 5:30 in the morning, driving much of the day, listening to the radio, enjoying the camaraderie of his co-workers.
Givens arriving at his job as a truck driver. (Photo by Chet Strange)
“I’m no longer taking lives,” he says, “I’m putting up equipment that will save lives. See? This is how God works.”
— News editor Tina Griego contributed to this story.
[Editor's note: Jonathan Sheldon was the former board president, not executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty as appeared in the print version of this story. The error has been corrected here.]