Former state executioner had a change of heart about the death penalty

Posted at 12:12 AM, Feb 22, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-22 10:48:22-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- There are plenty of death penalty opponents in this land. But perhaps none like Jerry Givens of Richmond.

He had to kill 62 inmates and then go to prison himself before he came to the conclusion that state-run executions aren’t a good idea.

But he was good at it during his run as a key member of the state’s death squad from 1982 to 1999.

“The guys never complained,” he told CBS 6 recently. “No guy ever bucked on us – put up resistance. Never.  I even had one guy come out and kiss the chair.”

That was double-murderer Willie Leroy Jones, electrocuted on Sept. 11, 1992.

Givens hit the switch or pushed the plunger for some of the worst killers in state history.

He said he never got an extra dime in pay and had to hide what he did from virtually everyone – even his wife – because of the nature of what he did, and the possibility of retribution.

Givens grew up tough in Creighton Court, one of the city’s East End housing projects.

He was a scrapper.  Immediately after taking a job as a guard at the State Pen on Spring Street in the city, he knocked out an inmate who swung on him.

“They gave me a name – Stun Gun Givens,” he recalled.

He saw crime and punishment as a simple formula:  You break the law, the law breaks on you.

When he was asked to join the death squad, that math made it easy on his conscience.

“If you go out here and you rape and you kill somebody and you know the Commonwealth of Virginia has a death penalty, you know the consequences behind what you did.”

Plus, it wasn’t his decision that anyone be executed.

“The jury, the judge, those people recommend it,” Givens said, adding that citizens – mothers and fathers – brought the death penalty back after a 20-year hiatus in Virginia.

He remembers their first one:  Frank Coppola, executed August 10, 1982.  There was tremendous news coverage leading up to the execution, and the death chamber was packed.

Givens recalled being nervous, along with the rest of his squad. “The coolest thing down there was Frank.”

He didn’t push the button for that execution. But he did for the next one, notorious serial killer Linwood Briley, executed October 12, 1984.

Givens took great care to keep the process clean, completely by the book.

As the guy who pushed the button, he could feel it, smell it.

But he preferred that to lethal injection, which became the prime mode of execution here in 1995.

“You feel more attached” with lethal injection, Givens said. “During an electrocution, it’s a button you push and the machine runs for 45 seconds. You push it again and it runs for another 45 seconds. Lethal injection you’re on the end, pushing a syringe into a line and you’re watching the chemicals go down the line into the condemned’s veins.”

His view on his job - and the death penalty - shifted when he went to prison himself in 1999 after being convicted of money laundering for using drug money to buy two vehicles for on old Creighton Court friend who didn’t have a license.

Even the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Davis said at the time that it was a “tough, tough case” to prosecute, telling the jury “there are a lot of good things about Jerry Givens.”

But the case broke against Givens because the jury believed Givens should have known the cash from his friend was drug money.

Givens spent nearly five years in prison.

“I lose my pension, my retirement . . . after 25 years?” he asked incredulously.

“I said, well, if they go to this extreme to get me, what about those guys that I’m killing?  Earl Washington, his case came up. And if he hadn’t gotten a stay, if DNA hadn’t proven him innocent, I would’ve executed him.”

The former executioner now believes in a different kind of death penalty for the worst criminals.

“You can keep the death penalty,” he said. “I would sentence you to death . . . that means you will die in the institution.”

Givens is 60 now. He has spoken out against the state executions and has testified at a legislative hearing seeking to expand the death penalty.

He’s still working, installing interstate guardrails. He enjoys going to games at his old alma mater, Armstrong High.

And Givens he says he sleeps easy, with no nightmares about his old job – one that he did to the best of his ability.