Celia McWee (USA)

“I couldn't let him die in a room full of strangers”

Photography by Brian Moody

On New Year’s Day 1980, Celia Mcwee received the devastating news that her daughter, Joyce, had been murdered by Joyce’s husband, Eugene. Two decades later, on April 16th 2004, she suffered the double tragedy of witnessing her son’s execution on death row. Celia lives in Augusta, Georgia, and is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), an organization which opposes the death penalty.

When we were told that our daughter had been murdered, it was just such an unbelievable thing. I stood there in shock, watching the color drain from my husband’s face. We had shared so many happy times together, and our son-in-law was not the violent type.

We flew to Florida and brought our two young granddaughters back to Augusta for the funeral. We never asked the children anything but one of them said, “daddy hit mommy.” The prosecutor described it as a crime of passion, and assured us he’d call the minute Eugene went before the judge, but we heard nothing. Six months later we discovered that Eugene had been sentenced to just one year probation and was back home looking after the children. His mother had money and had used her influence to help him. I don’t resent her – if I had money I would have done the same for my son.

I tried to stay in contact with my granddaughters, but my letters and presents were never acknowledged. Finally, after 18 years, I went to Florida to visit them. I must say, Eugene had done a good job in raising them and it was an extremely happy occasion, but sadly I never heard from them again after that.

Joyce’s death broke us as a family. My husband, like my older son Roy, never talked about it, while I became totally wrapped up in my own little woven nest. My younger son Jerry was the most hurt. “Mother,” he said, “if you’d taken me to Florida I would have killed Eugene, because he killed a part of me”.

Jerry had been happily married for 17 years when he decided he’d fallen in love with a 22-year-old girl. His wife was heartbroken, and I was upset and angry, but he wouldn’t listen to us. He got a divorce and married the girl, but things didn’t work out and when they ran into financial difficulties his new wife walked out on him. Alone and with no money, he moved in with a boy who took drugs and had a record as long as your arm.

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.

A few days later Jerry took a gun and went with his friend to a convenience store where he shot a man dead. I’ll never know why he did it, but I’m certain he was thinking of his brother-in-law when he pulled the trigger. The following day, the two of them went to visit their roof contractor boss and Jerry’s friend shot and killed the poor man. After that Jerry alerted the police. He told me later, “I was very much afraid the killing would have continued”.

My son strongly regretted what he’d done and felt he deserved to die, but when he called from prison to say he’d been served his execution date, I just about lost it. I was glad my husband was now no longer alive: he couldn’t have borne the pain.

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. There were just two of us watching – myself and a relative of the roof contractor. 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. I deeply resent a government that kills its own citizens – its own children.

It still feels so raw and so painful, and yet I feel no hatred or blame – neither for Eugene nor for those who killed my son. My anger is entirely directed towards myself for turning my back on my son when he needed me most.

Celia McWee passed away on 14 February 2011.