Monday, February 21, 2011

In Memoriam: Celia McWee

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Celia McWee, a victim's family member from Georgia whose voice and passionate energy made a difference to so many efforts to abolish the death penalty. Celia was an active member of The Journey of Hope, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

In 2009, Celia was featured in a compelling article from In the Fray magazine titled "The Forgotten Victims." Four years previously, Celia had helped MVFHR launch the No Silence, No Shame project, which draws attention to the ways in which the death penalty harms the families of people who are executed. Here is the statement that Celia gave in Austin, Texas in October 2005, at the press conference and public ceremony that marked the official beginning of the project:

In 1979, my daughter Joyce was murdered in Florida. Fifteen years later, my son Jerry was executed by the state of South Carolina for the 1991 murder of John Perry, a clerk in a convenience store.

In both cases, I lost a child, but there is such a big difference between the two kinds of losses. When they call you and say your child has been murdered, you don’t know anything about what happened. You don’t know if she suffered or if she tried to get help.

That’s how it was with my daughter. But with my son, I knew that the day was coming. I knew that he was going to be killed. In the weeks before, I went to visit him every single day, but even though we knew what was going to happen, it was so difficult to talk about it. We couldn’t even talk about things like, what hymn would you like them to play at the service. When somebody’s ill, you can discuss that sort of thing with them, but with Jerry, we just couldn’t do it. I had to fight with him because he didn’t even want me to be present at the execution. He didn’t want to see me cry. He said, “You’ve cried enough,” and I said, “I promise I won’t.”

When the day of the execution came, I kept my promise to Jerry. In the one instant that he turned to look at me, I wiped my tears away so he didn’t see them.

I don’t know how to explain to you that when the state executes someone, they are killing someone’s child. Jerry was my son, the child of my body, and I sat and watched him strapped to a cross – not a gurney, because what it looks like is a cross, with the arms straight out – and I saw him take his last look at me and then I saw all the blood drain from his face.

I know that this experience has had a big effect on me. A huge effect. Some days I wonder about my ability to go on. But I have seen that many families of death row prisoners withdraw from everyone after the execution takes place. I know that I don’t want to live it like that. I know that I want to help others who have gone through this. I know that we are stronger if we join together. I know that ending our silence and moving away from our shame will help us heal ourselves and help us bring about a better world.

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