Jerry Givens (pictured), who performed 62 executions during his time as a Virginia corrections officer, but later became an activist against the death penalty, died April 13, 2020 of COVID-19. He was 67 years old. During his 17 years (1982-1999) as a member of Virginia’s execution team, the commonwealth performed more executions than any other state except Texas.

Though he swore an oath not to tell even his family about his role as executioner until he left his corrections position, Givens later shared his experiences throughout the U.S. and internationally. “Jerry was pained by his experience but also proud of how he did it,” said Abraham Bonowitz, co-director of the abolitionist group, Death Penalty Action, on whose board of directors Givens served. “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.”

“He was one of the very few executioners who was willing to speak publicly about his experience, and how that experience changed him over time so that he became a passionate critic and opponent of the death penalty,” said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP), another organization for which Givens served as a board member.

Givens said he was shaken by the case of Earl Washington, an intellectually disabled man who falsely confessed to murder. In 1985, Givens was scheduled to execute Washington, but he received a last-minute stay and was later exonerated by DNA evidence. “I was doing so many executions at the time, I was sort of addicted to executing, not that I enjoyed it, but you get into a certain mind-set. I’m a husband and a father at home. I’m a church attender,” Givens said. “I did not want to wear the fact that I executed an innocent man for the rest of my life, and God answered my prayers. He answered them by taking me to prison and taking Earl Washington out.”

Givens said his views were also shaped by the four years he spent in prison on charges of perjury and money laundering. Givens steadfastly maintained his innocence of those charges. During his incarceration, Givens prayed and read the Bible. Reflecting on Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, he concluded that the death penalty was wrong. “This was God’s way of waking me up,” he said of his time in prison.

In his time as an anti-death penalty activist, Givens testified before legislatures across the country—most recently in his home state of Virginia—and spoke at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty. In 2017, he joined with other current and former corrections officials to warn Arkansas about the psychological trauma that the state’s rushed execution scheduled would inflict on those who carried out executions.

In his public appearances, Givens spoke of the emotional and psychological toll of performing executions. “How can I be myself? I’m not a natural killer,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2007 about his mindset during an execution. “These people haven’t done anything to me. I’m not doing it out of revenge.” “You are not going to feel happy,” Mr. Givens told the Washington Post in 2013. “You feel for the condemned man’s family and the victim’s family. You have two sets of families that are losing someone.”

On March 16, 2020, Givens emailed DPIC with a message about the coronavirus and the death penalty. “With this Coronavirus that has taken control over our Country,” he wrote, “executions should be the last thing on the list. Let us join together and pray that things will get better.”