Originally published in the Aiken Standard, April 22, 2004.
On Friday, I sat in a small room with seven other people and watched a man die.
The execution of Jerry McWee was carried out with quiet efficiency, and I served as one of three media witnesses who would later relate the details of the execution to other members of the press.
During the weeks leading up to the execution, I had moments of conflicting decisions about being a witness. On the one hand, it is a rare journalistic moment to have the opportunity to hold a mirror up for society for the ultimate punishment in the world of criminal justice. On the other hand, it’s sitting there watching someone die.
In the end I decided I would have more regrets if I didn’t go than if I did go. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to see someone die. But ideally, a journalist’s ultimate role is to present the things that society needs to know but cannot always see for itself.
The execution was scheduled for 6 p.m. At 5:15, the three of us were brought inside the Department of Corrections office complex. Individually, we were taken into a room and searched by guards. A metal detector wand was waved over every inch of our bodies, and we were required to lift our pants legs to ensure we had brought in nothing against prison rules. After the search, we sat together in a small office, idle chatter filling the next half hour. At about 5:55, a DOC employee stuck her head in the office. “We’re ready for you.”
We were walked down a staircase and hurried on to a waiting van. We took the mile-or-so drive down to the heavily fortified complex where the sentence would be completed. Fences covered in razor wire surrounded the facility, and there was no shortage of stone-faced guards holding shotguns around the complex. The van pulled across a small prison yard and stopped in front of a nondescript brick wing of the building.
I was somewhat surprised when we walked in the building, made a quick turn around a corner and were suddenly in the death chamber. The first thing I noticed upon entering was Jerry McWee’s mother, Celia, sitting in the front row. On the other end of the row was a witness for the victim’s family. He sat without outward emotion through the duration and did not speak to media afterward. Two law enforcement officers were also seated in the room.
The room itself was no bigger than a small patio. Cold, brick walls were on three sides. In front of us was a large partition, with five large glass panes. A door on the left side opened into the room where Jerry McWee would take his final breath. A heavy, drab brown curtain was pulled across the window. However, we could hear muffled sounds from behind the curtain. Out of our sight, a convicted murderer was being strapped to a gurney and hooked up to IVs that would bring lethal chemicals into his bloodstream.
A few weeks ago, I had heard someone who had witnessed an execution in Texas say that there is nothing like the sounds of a mother watching her son die. I now know what that means. Celia McWee made hardly more than a whimper as she watched her son die. But it was a chilling sound that was inescapably sad. When the curtain first slid open, Mrs. McWee had a bit of a gasp, and said something under her breath. Another media witness, sitting closer to her, thought she said, “Oh my God!” I certainly have no problem believing that’s what she said, as the sight of one’s son strapped to a gurney, arms extended straight out and IVs flowing from his arm is something unimaginable. His only acknowledgment to anyone in the witness pool was a turn of the head toward his mother, to whom he blew a kiss.
Less than 20 minutes later, Mrs. McWee crumpled in her chair and sobbed slightly louder — although still barely audible — when an unidentified doctor stepped from a side door, placed a stethoscope at McWee’s chest and then checked both of his eyes with a penlight. He turned toward the warden, standing near McWee’s feet, and gave a nod, and then exited the room.
The actual process of the execution was very sterile. My anticipation was far worse than what actually transpired, at least in physical appearance. When the first IV started to jump, McWee looked at the ceiling. We saw his lips moving. I assume he was praying. Perhaps he had become a religious man during his 13 years of incarceration. Or perhaps he just realized what was happening. Many a man has found God on the gallows. No one will ever know. At 6:04 p.m., his eyes closed for good. One of the media witnesses, who was attending his fourth execution, said that lethal injections gave the appearance of someone going to sleep. And he’s exactly right. There was no gore, no writhing in pain, no gasps or groans. It did look as if Jerry McWee had gone to sleep.
From the time he closed his eyes to the time he was pronounced dead, 14 minutes passed. It was possibly the longest 14 minutes of my life. We sat in near silence, staring at a man who was, if not dead, on his way there. Three sounds echoed through the room: Mrs. McWee’s soft weeping, the occasional scratching on a note pad by the media witnesses, and the metronomic clicking of an old clock perched on the wall. The “TICK-TICK-TICK” cut any silence with alarming frequency, each second reminding us of the gravity of our shared situation.
After the warden announced into a microphone that the sentence had been carried out, the three of us were whisked from the room and back onto the van. Before we knew it, we were standing behind a lectern, telling other members of the media what had happened in the death chamber.
Jerry Bridwell McWee was executed for taking the life of a father, a husband and a devoted friend. The state of South Carolina has deemed that for crimes of the magnitude of McWee’s, death is the acceptable punishment. I neither endorse nor dispute the rights or wrongs of that. That was not my job when I was selected to attend the execution. My job was to report what happens when a person receives ultimate punishment. Both sides will argue, never changing the other’s opinion. Proponents will say that McWee received a far more humane end than his victims. Opponents say that two wrongs do not make a right.
I don’t know who is right. But I know from my experience this much: The death penalty is a sad and somber event. It leaves more victims in its wake. And while it may bring closure, it does not bring people back.
If the death penalty is a necessary punishment in our society, it is my hope that everyone who endorses its use does so with the respect that such an awesome power deserves. And for those who oppose it, I hope that you will include in your prayers and vigils the countless crime victims whose pain will never be erased, even by the ultimate final sentence.
I entered the death chamber without a strong conviction on the death penalty. I left with even less conviction either way. I watched Jerry McWee being put to death only a few feet away from me. I listened as a mother watched her son die. I saw a man harboring 13 years of sorrow seek closure as he stared at the face of the man who murdered a loved one.
The only thing I feel certain of is that the only one who left the room without feeling more pain was Jerry McWee.