The Executioner’s Song

Editors’ Note: Sourced from AP News, April 17, 2020. The career of Virginia’s executioner opens questions about reasonable doubt.

Jerry Givens, who served as Virginia’s chief executioner for 17 years before he himself was sent to prison and later became a prominent voice against capital punishment, died at 67 in Henrico, Virginia.  A family member said Givens had pneumonia and tested positive for the coronavirus.

Givens campaigned against the death penalty at meetings and conferences throughout the country, describing the job’s grim intimacy and emotional toll as well as his fears of killing the innocent.

“He was one of the few former executioners willing to speak about his experiences with the public . . . . He spoke wherever, whenever and to whomever he could, trying to explain why the death penalty needs to end.”

“He was one of the few former executioners willing to speak about his experiences with the public,” said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “He spoke wherever, whenever and to whomever he could, trying to explain why the death penalty needs to end.”

Givens served as Virginia’s chief executioner from 1982 through 1999 at a time when the state was second only to Texas in executions. He said he presided over 62 of them, pushing the button for the electric chair and later performing lethal injections that he said connected him even more deeply and intimately with the condemned.

“How can I be myself? I’m not a natural killer,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2007 about his thoughts during an execution. “These people haven’t done anything to me. I’m not doing it out of revenge,” Givens offered.  He added that he prayed for the men and worked hard to avoid mistakes, telling prisoners “they had to get themselves together because at 11 o’clock they were going either to see their maker or going elsewhere.”

They included triple-murderer James D. Briley, whose victims were a pregnant woman, her common-law husband and her 5-year-old son. Another was Syvasky Poyner, who killed five women in 11 days.

Givens’ faith in the justice system began to wane with the case against Earl Washington Jr., a man who had an I.Q. of 69 and confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams. Washington was sentenced to death but was moved off death row and later freed following DNA tests.

Givens’ faith in the justice system began to wane with the case against Earl Washington Jr., a man who had an I.Q. of 69 and confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams. Washington was sentenced to death but was moved off death row and later freed in 2000 following exculpatory DNA evidence.

In 1999, Givens was convicted of money laundering and lying to a federal grand jury about it, The Washington Post reported. Prosecutors said Givens had bought a car with an old friend with proceeds Givens knew came from drug dealing. Givens maintained his innocence. But his career ended. He spent four years behind bars.

“This was God’s way of waking me up,” Givens told The Washington Post in 2013.

Abraham Bonowitz, the co-director of Death Penalty Action, said part of Givens’ mission was to alleviate the burden state corrections employees faced as executioners.

“Jerry was pained by his experience but also proud of how he did it,” Bonowitz said. “That sometimes rubbed some people in the movement the wrong way. He was also a very devout religious person. He did what he could to help heal the world in the wake of the damage done during his career.”

While civilized society may comfort itself with having condemned individuals to death on the basis of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and unanimous jury, those employed by the state to carry out executions may tell another tale–one of doubt burdened with reason.

Whether Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song, 1979, about the Utah execution of Gary Gilmore) or The Mikado (Gilbert & Sullivan, 1885), capital punishment increasingly fails the best of civilized behavior. Ko-Ko serenades . . .   

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

–Koko, Lord High Executioner, The Mikado.

 



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