Video: Opinion | The Life of Jerry Givens, a State Executioner Turned Death-Row Abolitionist

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Leviticus — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth I will repay, an often-quoted scripture that people use to justify the death penalty. But we never ask ourselves, what is the damage that’s being done to a person when they execute, when they kill another human being? Jerry was a perfect example of that. Jerry executed 62 people total. Jerry Givens — a loving husband, father, a devout Christian, and former executioner for the State of Virginia. And me? Well, I’ve spent my life working to abolish the death penalty. But we became friends. I met Jerry late in his life, after he came around to being a death- penalty abolitionist. Surprise. There was a lot of unusual matches that happen in this work. Jerry was a very Christian guy. I’m a Jewish person. You bond over things. We would seek out good barbecue. Jerry was a little pudgy. So am I. Jerry was my friend. “Thank you for coming up here, brother.” “Thank you.” Jerry was born in Virginia, a lifelong resident of Richmond. He lost his father to drugs. He wanted to be a football player. You know how that goes for people. You’re either in or you’re out. He wanted to be a police officer. But he ended up with a job as a corrections officer. And, of course, in 1972, the Supreme Court struck down all the death- penalty laws in the country. Any state that wanted to have executions had to write a new death-penalty law. Many did, including Virginia. When Virginia resumed executing people in the mid-1980s, Jerry was the person who was tapped for that job to head the execution team. You’re it. In this era, Virginia was No. 2, just behind Texas as the most executing of all the states. That meant he was the man that pushed the button, 25 electrocutions, and he pushed the syringe for 37 lethal injections. Jerry’s prayer always was God, don’t let me execute an innocent person. It turned out that there was an innocent person named Earl Washington. And they came within days of executing Earl Washington. That was especially troublesome for him. But it was not his job to sort those things out. Jerry executed 62 people total. That doesn’t not do damage to you. He wanted to protect his family from what he was absorbing. They did not know what his job was at the prison until they read about it in news coverage when he was on trial for some legal trouble he got into for allegedly money laundering. He ended up going to prison himself, which ended up ending his career in corrections. When you’re in prison, you get to spend a lot of time thinking. And I think Jerry came to understand the evil of the death penalty. “So I think this was a wake-up call from God. The system wasn’t right.” The burden we ask state workers to take on when we ask them to kill in our name is lifelong. Many internalize it and end up alcoholic or drug-addicted or committing suicide. But Jerry, he told his story. He spent the rest of his life trying to make amends and fix it. “I have to suffer through this, not the State of Virginia, not the governor, not the people that gave this man the death penalty, but me. I had to suffer through this.” When Jerry spoke, he was heard. His voice was undeniable. A part of his goal was to protect other prison workers, his comrades. He saw himself as on a mission to right some wrongs. That’s where his heart was. During the summer, I just happened to be looking at Facebook and noticing that somebody was liking specific pictures. And they were all pictures that Jerry was in. So I said, what’s up? And I went to look at Jerry’s Facebook page. And that’s where I saw — that’s how I found out that Jerry had died. When I finally got to have a conversation with Jerry’s family, they asked me to become a voice to share his story. There are no coincidences. We were meant to do this work together to change the world. And we did change the world. We’ve abolished the death penalty in a number of states — New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, Colorado. The courts have thrown it out in Washington State and Delaware and New York. Virginia, they’re actually, in their legislature, in a conversation about abolishing the death penalty. And Jerry would have been happy to know that this possibility exists in part with his testimony. It doesn’t matter that we were different religions or different races or different generations. What matters is what we came together about one thing — the preservation of life and the dignity of life. He recognized the damage that was done and did his best to fix it, make himself right with his God. [SOMBER MUSIC]

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