Abe Bonowitz was on Facebook earlier this month when he noticed someone liking a series of pictures on his page. They were all old photos of his friend and fellow anti-death penalty activist Jerry Givens. “It occurred to me to check his page,” Bonowitz said. And that’s how he found out that Givens had died. He had Covid-19.
Givens, 67, was on the board of Death Penalty Action, an abolitionist group Bonowitz co-founded in 2016. He was the unlikeliest of allies. In his previous life working for the Virginia Department of Corrections, Givens had been the state’s chief executioner. Between 1982 and 1999, he carried out 62 executions: 25 in the electric chair and 37 using lethal injection. During much of that era, Virginia was second only to Texas in killing the condemned — “the bad old days,” according to Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Givens lost his job and his anonymity after being arrested for money laundering in 1999. After a stint in federal prison, he found it harder and harder to compartmentalize what he had done. The executions had seeped into his mind, impacting other aspects of his life. Givens was seeking help with a legal matter a couple of years after his release when he was put in touch with Jon Sheldon, a capital defense attorney who was then the board chair of VADP. Their conversation turned to Givens’s years working for the state. Sheldon immediately saw the significance of his story.
What he once saw as a job he did as professionally and humanely as possible became a practice that he could no longer defend.
“Jerry was very cautious,” Sheldon recalls. At that time, “he had mixed feelings about his role with the Department of Corrections.” He asked to meet Sheldon somewhere they were not likely to be seen, suggesting a truck stop on I-95, just north of Richmond. There, Givens talked while Sheldon listened. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, this guy has PTSD,’” he said. But Givens also struck him as thoughtful and kind. Eventually Sheldon convinced Givens to share his story.
Over time, Givens’s views on the death penalty evolved. What he once saw as a job he did as professionally and humanely as possible became a practice that he could no longer defend. He became a public figure, speaking to reporters and testifying at legislative hearings. “I never remember him turning down a request to speak or to be interviewed,” Stone said. “He would even happily talk to high school kids doing papers about the death penalty.”
“He was on a bit of a mission,” Bonowitz said. “He felt like he had a purpose and perhaps an obligation to fix what he could about a system that he was a part of but understood was wrong.”
Givens had particular credibility among those who supported executions in the name of law and order. In 2012, as California organizers were pushing Prop 34, a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty, Bonowitz brought Givens on a speaking tour that took them through the Central Valley, a conservative part of the state. Former Florida State Prison Warden Ron McAndrew joined them; he and Givens bonded during the road trip. “Every time Abe would get up about eight or 10 miles over the speed limit, Jerry would nudge me with his leg,” McAndrew recalled.
To McAndrew, Givens was a kindred spirit. “We talked about the executions that we’d been involved in. And how they had affected us personally.” McAndrew had shared his own story publicly only after years of nightmares and heavy drinking. It was a relief “to admit to a large group of people that I had been traumatized by this work. And a lot of my friends had been traumatized.” Together they had been like “a little secret club,” he said, who would talk to each other on the phone, “sort of helping each other out like alcoholics, I guess you could say.”
In California, telling their stories back to back, McAndrew saw the impact when Givens spoke. “You could look out into an audience and you could tell that he’d gotten to them,” he said. He found that they had different styles and different ways of coping. For McAndrew, it came from a combination of religion and years of therapy insisted upon by his wife. As for Givens, “he found his resolve through faith.”
Locked Up Inside
It is hard to be sure how Givens contracted the coronavirus. Early reports linked his illness to a revival in early March at the Cedar Street Baptist Church in Richmond, where Givens sang in the choir. A week after the event, the local health department notified the church that an attendee had tested positive for Covid-19.
Givens’s niece, Valerie Travers, said Givens began feeling sick in mid-March and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was prescribed antibiotics but got worse. A few days after he was admitted to the hospital, he tested positive for Covid-19. Before long, he was on a ventilator.
Like many others who have succumbed to the virus, Givens seemed to be doing better before he died. Every day the family received a phone call in the morning and one at night — the updates signaled improvement. On April 13, Travers recalls, her mother had gotten off the phone, and they were “praising God over how good he was doing and there was some good progress.” But just a couple of hours later, the phone rang again. “And I could hear my mother’s screaming and crying.”
On his Facebook page and memorial guestbook, mourners described Givens as a father figure, coach, and mentor who cared deeply for young people. “He was always there for us to talk with us if we needed to, and he wanted to make sure we went in the right direction,” Travers said. Givens had seen violence in the neighborhood where he grew up; he lost his father to drugs, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings on her own. As a kid, he wanted to be a police officer and then a professional football player. Instead, in 1974, he took a job with the Virginia Department of Corrections.
In a short memoir published in 2012, Givens recalled how he was approached by his boss to participate in the execution team. “We all met in one room in the basement of A-Cell House, a place we call East Basement or Death Chambers,” he wrote. The space had not been used since the early 1960s. When the state prepared to resume executions in 1982, Givens had to shift the way he saw himself, from someone who would have saved the lives of the men on his watch to someone who could kill them. “I knew at that moment that I would have to transform myself into the mindset of an executioner,” he wrote.
Givens never told his family what he was doing. Travers just remembers how his uniforms were always clean and crisp as he went to work. “We were just thinking he was a guard,” she said. “I think all of us thought that.” Givens’s sister Evelyn told Richmond Magazine how the family found out about his past, by reading about it in a news report on his arrest. “It hurt me because I’m against the death penalty,” she said. “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.’”
“I think he regretted it,” she went on. “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.”
Trauma and Forgiveness
Not everyone was able to forgive Jerry Givens. Within the abolitionist movement — and among the families of the men he killed — there were many people who simply could not get past what he had done. And yet his life also provided powerful testimony to what abolitionists often preach: that everyone is more than their worst acts; that everyone has the capacity to change.
“Even if people are disgusted by what he did,” Bonowitz said, “there’s a truth about what comes out of his mouth that’s undeniable.” Givens may have been unique in many ways, but there are countless others who carry trauma from their proximity to executions. “I think it is important to understand that capital punishment produces a lot of collateral damage,” Stone says, from jurors to judges to lawyers and families on both sides of the case. “And many of them are traumatized by that experience.”
At one of his final public events last year, Givens carried that warning to a church in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the Trump administration planned to restart federal executions after 16 years. Bonowitz had organized a series of events in and around the city, which included screenings of a documentary about Givens titled “In the Executioner’s Shadow.” It told the story of Earl Washington Jr., who came within days of the electric chair only to later be exonerated. That he came so close to killing Washington shook Givens. He wondered if any of the men he killed had been innocent too.
“People think you can do something like that and then go home and forget about it. No. It’s something that is stuck with you.”
Afterward Givens took questions. He wore a dark suit coat, glasses, and a gold watch. One man asked how his job had impacted his children. “I never discussed it with my kids,” Givens answered. If he had, “then they would have to go through what I go through.”
Later Givens joined his fellow activists at a nearby Denny’s. Sitting at the end of the table, he shared his concerns over the danger of botched executions like that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma. States were playing “Russian roulette” with lethal injection, he said. Whoever the federal government hired to carry out the executions in Terre Haute, they were almost certainly going to be inexperienced.
Givens had been disturbed by the switch from electrocutions to lethal injection in Virginia. The former was swift — and only required him to push a button, he said. But as he told the filmmakers, lethal injection put him “at the end of each syringe. I’m pushing the poison down the tube into the body. So I’m more attached to this person.” One of the chemicals he used was a paralytic that immobilized the condemned. Today we know that the three-drug cocktail was not always effective at anesthetizing a person, leading to a silently tortuous death. Over dinner, Givens said he never saw any signs of suffering. But he couldn’t be sure.
The conversation turned to the way different states handled executions. In some states, executions take place away from death row, carried out by staffers who do not know the person they are about to kill. This is meant to make it easier on prison employees. But Givens pushed back. It didn’t make a difference who did it. “Killing is killing.”
“People think you can do something like that and then go home and forget about it,” he went on. “No. It’s something that is stuck with you.” I asked him if he was still in touch with the men who he worked with at the prison. He said he was. But he would never reveal their names. “I was sworn to a secret,” he said. “And I’ve stuck to it.”
Another Day Is Not Promised
Givens was buried at Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery on April 18. “He was in a beautiful black suit with a tie and a handkerchief to match. And his glasses,” Travers said. Only 10 people were allowed at the funeral, but there were singers and a eulogy by his pastor from Cedar Street Baptist Church. A slideshow featured photos of family vacations along with his anti-death penalty work.
Afterward, the family released a bunch of balloons in his honor, burgundy and gold, the color of the Washington Redskins, his favorite football team. Then they drove home in separate cars. Someday there will be a gathering in his honor, Travers said, hopefully featuring his favorite foods — “probably shrimp, collard greens, potato salad, homemade rolls. Some of his brother-in-law’s homemade cakes.” But for now they have to grieve apart.
One of the last times he spoke to his family before he died, Givens asked them not to worry, saying “he was ready if the worst were to happen,” Travers said. In his book, titled “Another Day Is Not Promised,” he wrote that taking the lives of so many men had taught him “to appreciate my own life that God has given me.” But this doesn’t make his death any less painful for those who knew him. Givens had a lot of living left to do. He was still speaking, still writing letters against executions. He wanted to see more states abolish the death penalty, especially Virginia. And he wanted to keep fighting alongside Bonowitz against the planned federal executions. Travers has invited people to donate to Death Penalty Action in his name.
Givens had ordinary plans too. To go to lunch in Richmond with Sheldon, the man who first brought him into the movement. To go fishing in Florida with McAndrew, who had invited him to stay at his home. To spend time with his beloved wife and family, including his niece. He used to have dinner with her and her mother almost every Sunday, Travers said. They would play spades. “He was my card partner,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do now.”