On this date in 2004, South Carolina executed a man who had once been on the other side of the law.
Jerry Bridwell McWee hardly fit the profile of a future death row inmate when he met one George Scott. McWee was pushing 40, had no criminal record, and had once done a stint as an Augusta, Ga., police officer.
But it wasn’t many months that the two had iced a couple of Aiken County denizens in a hunt for drug money.*
It may have worked to Scott’s advantage that he was a career criminal, and had the instinct to turn state’s evidence before his confederate could send him to the gurney. Even so, it took some wheedling to get a death sentence out of the jury, which was clearly better inclined to give McWee life. A law (since reversed) at that time forbade advising jurors on parole scenarios, so the jury’s repeated pleas to know when the prisoner might be released under a life sentence — actual answer: age 71, at the earliest — were denied.
It was bum luck for Jerry under the circumstances, but also a mess of his own making; there was no question of innocence or some other mitigating point that gave him any likelihood of winning South Carolina’s first executive clemency.
The invaluable archives at the Clark County (Ind.) prosecutor’s web page collect news stories about every modern execution in the United States. On Jerry McWee’s page, an Associated Press report from the death chamber sketches an affecting portrat of two families’ grief.
In his final statement read by his lawyer, McWee asked both his own family and [victim John] Perry’s family to forgive him. “I only wished that things could have been different,” McWee wrote. “I would give anything if only that could have been the case.” A tear formed in his eye as his mother blew a kiss back at him and his final words were read. That tear finally rolled down the side of his head moments after he stopped breathing. More than 10 minutes later, McWee was officially declared dead at 6:18 p.m.
Celia McWee softly sobbed, a well-wadded tissue in her hand, as she waited for prison officials to open the curtain to the death chamber. She gasped “Oh my God” and her cries got louder as the curtain opened and she saw her clean-shaven son strapped to the gurney, his arms extended, and intravenous tubes stretching through a nearby wall. A minister put his hand on her shoulder. After glancing at his mother, Jerry McWee looked back at the ceiling, softly mumbling as the tubes shuddered. He blinked several times and his breathing got shallow, then stopped. Celia McWee’s sobs got softer as it was obvious McWee was no longer breathing. But she never took her eyes off her son.
A member of Perry’s family also witnessed the execution, and his gaze never left McWee’s body either. After the execution, Perry’s wife and family issued a statement thanking the community, law enforcement and prosecutors and saying it was not a time to rejoice. “God has given us free will – we are each responsible for our actions,” part of the statement read. “Please make choices you can live with. Please pray for the soul of Jerry B. McWee.”
The executed man’s mother, Celia McWee, also lost a daughter to murder in 1980; she had been, and remains, a mainstay of the anti-death penalty movement. On this biographical page, she sets the scene through a mother’s eyes.
One day Jerry came to my work. We said hello but I was still angry and didn’t ask if he wanted to talk. I thought, “If you’re going through a hard time, then good, because now you’re being punished for what you did.” To this day I’ll never forgive myself for not reaching out to him.
Jerry didn’t want me to witness the execution but I fought tooth and nail to be there. I couldn’t let him die in front of a room full of strangers. … The wife of Jerry’s victim wasn’t there, and I would say she’s the most sympathetic person I’ve ever known. She never publicly denounced what my son did, nor did she ever call for his execution.
Just before the lethal injection, Jerry turned to take a good long look at me and then blew me a kiss. After that he closed his eyes and I watched the blood drain from his face. I don’t know what could be harder than watching your son die like that. A mother does not see a 30, 40, 50-year-old man strapped to that cross-like gurney. She sees the child she gave birth to, the child that in her eyes never grew up.
* In two separate crimes, each had been the triggerman once. Formally, McWee was executed only for the first murder, a clerk McWee had shot in the course of robbing a convenience store of $350. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the second murder, for which he received a life sentence; Scott did likewise.