Soul of RVA: A closer look at the life of the late Jerry Givens, chief executioner turned death penalty abolition advocate

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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – Every month, Valerie Travers comes to the Oakwood Cemetery to visit her late uncle, Jerry Givens.

“He was such a family man and he was really compassionate with everyone he encountered,” Travers told 8News.

A father and husband, Travers says her uncle had a major love for people. She adds it’s something he kept in the back of his mind during his role as Virginia’s chief executioner from 1982 to 1999. It’s a role he kept hidden from everyone, including his family.

 “It wasn’t until later in his career and as we got older, that we really knew what his job was about,” Terence Travers, Givens’ son said.

“He would throw out little bits and pieces until he finally did tell me later on,” Sadie Travers Givens, Givens’ widow said. “But I didn’t know from the beginning.”

Travers explains his father started out as a guard and was most likely approached by a superior to join the execution team.

“I really believe a lot of it had to do with the way that he interacted with the prisoners,” Travers said.
“I know, sometimes, he would take some that were the more dangerous ones to the infirmary. They respected him so much there, so I think even when it came down to being a part of the execution team, they felt like he may be a good one to get a mentality of the guy being executed and being able to talk.”

In a time where Virginia was only second to Texas in executions, Givens’ family says he saw the job as a duty, but it did take its toll.

“It became a time where I guess within his soul, his mentality that he was doing a job because it was his job,” Travers explained. “I relate it to myself being in the military when you’re given a task, that’s your task. I know there was no gratitude in being a part of executions, but it was his job.”

Givens’ niece adds he would pray over the people he was about to execute.

“He would actually try to save souls and pray with the people who were going to be executed because he knew that they needed to try and save their soul prior to being executed,” Travers said.

Then at the turn of the decade, Givens had a change in course.

“My husband spent from 2001 until 2004 at the federal prison in Pennsylvania,” Travers Givens said.

Givens was convicted of money laundering but maintained his innocence. While his career ended, his purpose only amplified.

Former chief executioner for Virginia, Jerry Givens.

“When God sat him down, he gave him another vision,” Travers Givens said. “His vision – ‘Ok, you’ve done this not by your choice. The state of Virginia had you to do this, but I now have something else for you to do.'”

Givens had also learned of a man named Earl Washington, a former Virginia death row inmate who was days away from execution, and later cleared of the crimes he was charged with.

“When he looked at that and there was a stay that saved that man’s life, that made him think – what other people were totally innocent,” his niece explained. “There were other people who were mentally ill and just could not understand what was going on and some of those were executed in other states and all over the world.”

Givens then spent the rest of his life advocating against the very position he held for nearly two decades – speaking in favor of ending the death penalty.

“As soon as he got out – he was writing in there – when he got out, that’s when he was on a roll,” Travers Givens explained.

“It seemed like it weighed on him that he had to go and speak about stopping these executions,” his son added. “He spent the rest of his life traveling, being there, speaking about it.”

Givens passed in early 2020 from COVID-19 complications just months before Virginia lawmakers voted to abolish the death penalty. His family says while he would celebrate the news, there’s more work to be done.

Just months before passing, Givens was awarded the ‘2020 Living Legend’ award by his congregation at Cedar Street Baptist Church of God.

“The work wouldn’t be finished for him because Virginia just became the 23rd,” Travers said. “He would want to see all 50 states.”

Travers Givens says her late husband leaves behind a legacy her family can be proud of.

“He’s done what God has assigned him,” Travers Givens said. “He’s gone from labor to reward. Sure, I miss this man terribly. But when God speaks up, you’re going to move and be ready. As he said, he was ready.”

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