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Coronavirus Victims: Executioner And Anti-Death Penalty Activist Jerry Givens


More than 93,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. One of them is a man who spoke out against the death penalty after spending 17 years as an executioner. In 2011, his story was the subject of a documentary.


JERRY GIVENS: My name is Jerry Bronson Givens. I've killed 62 people.


Givens was born in 1952 and grew up in Richmond, Va., where he dreamed of becoming a pro football player.

KELLY: But when he dropped out of college, he found work as a guard at the state penitentiary and later as Virginia's chief executioner.

SHAPIRO: His job was to watch inmates during their final 24 hours and prep them for execution. Sometimes he prayed alongside them, and then he pressed the button for electrocution or the plunger of a syringe.

KELLY: Givens said, at first, he felt his work gave him a sense of purpose.


GIVENS: I thought justice was being done. If you an executioner and you enjoying what you're doing, you shouldn't be in that position.

SHAPIRO: That's him talking to The Washington Post in 2013. Eventually, his opinions began to shift, and he held a growing distrust of the criminal justice system. At one point, he was set to execute a man who was later found innocent and freed.


GIVENS: If that killer was still out there and then I took an innocent life, I'm in the same boat as - predicament this guy's in. He took an innocent life. I just took an innocent life.


GIVENS: Wouldn't make me any greater.

KELLY: It wasn't until Givens found himself in jail in 1999 that his time as an executioner came to an end. He was accused of money laundering. He spent four years behind bars, though he maintained his innocence until his death.

SHAPIRO: In prison, he turned toward religion. And upon his release, he became a prominent opponent of the death penalty.


GIVENS: Society don't know what goes on behind the curtain. I think now that they are aware of what's going on - and I think they will have a different outlook.

KELLY: Jerry Givens died on April 13. He was 67 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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