RIP Jerry Givens, former Virginia executioner-turned-abolitionist.

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Jerry Givens was an unlikely campaigner against the death penalty. A correctional officer at the Virginia State Penitentiary since the early 1970’s, Givens was also its resident executioner. Until going to prison himself in 1999 on perjury and money-laundering charges (charges he always denied) Givens rose through the ranks. At first supporting the death penalty, Givens became a member of the prison’s execution team, assisting at executions in the state on a regular basis. When the state executioner retired in 1982 it was Givens who replaced him.

Between 1982 and 1999 Givens personally performed 62 executions. 37 in the state’s electric chair and 25 by lethal injection. Unlike most death penalty states Virginia never paid him a fee for the job, just expected him to do it beside his regular duties. Initially this was no problem for him. It came to be an increasingly heavy burden to carry.

Givens executed some of Virginia’s most notorious felons including members of the ‘Mecklenburg Six,’ Brothers Linwood and James Briley, Lem Tuggle, Earl Clanton, Willie Jones and Derick Peterson achieved the seemingly-impossible on 31 May 1984 when they escaped Death Row at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

Once recaptured all six were executed by Givens. Linwood Briley died on 12 October 1984, brother James following him on 18 April 1985. Earl Clanton was next, dying on 14 April 1988.  Derick Peterson joined them 22 August 199 and Willie Jones on 11 September 1992. Last to die was Lem Tuggle on 12 December 1996.

Convict Dennis Stockton could have escaped with them but declined, believing his death sentence could be defeated in the courts. It wasn’t, Givens executed Stockton in 1995. Most of the information on the escape came from Stockton who knew the details and perhaps hoped his co-operation might secure mercy. Had he informed before the escape instead of co-operating after it mercy might have come Stockton’s way. As it was, it didn’t. On 27 September 1995 he received a lethal injection.

In 1999 Givens went from state executioner to convict. He served four years after buying a car using a friend’s money. The money came from drug-dealing, something Givens always claimed he was unaware of. Convicted of perjury and money-laundering Givens spent the next four years behind bars permanently aware of what could happen if he were identified by convicts. Had they found him out Givens would never have left the prison system alive.

Though he avoided vengeance from other convicts Givens’ past returned to haunt him in a different way. Condemned prisoner Earl Washington Jr had narrowly avoided Givens electric chair in 1985 and a lethal injection in 1994. With his death sentence commuted by Governor Douglas Wilder in 1994 Washington was fully exonerated in 2000. He had come within hours of dying for somebody else’s crime and Givens was greatly troubled by the case and capital punishment in general. Released from prison the former executioner’s faith in the death penalty had evaporated. He became a firm abolitionist instead.

Givens worked extensively with pressure groups Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Death Penalty Action for many years. Initially reluctant to go public, he was eventually persuaded to do so and with considerable success. Even many conservatives who met him or heard him speak found themselves influenced by his first-hand account of his work in Virginia’s death chamber. His book ‘Another Day Not Promised’ was a strong seller and eloquent in his opposition to the punishment he once inflicted.

Infected with COVID-19, Givens died at a Richmond hospital on 13 April 2020. He was 67 years old.

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