My friend Jackie, who lives in Charleston, emailed me today to tell me something that I have been waiting years to hear. She said that on the morning news they announced that the South Carolina Supreme Court had set the execution date for Joseph Gardner, the man who killed my friend Melissa back in 1992.
Melissa and I met while I was working at Piggly Wiggly in North Charleston. I was a bookkeeper and she was one of the cashiers. She worked there for a while and we would go shopping or out to dinner from time to time. She was engaged to a guy named John who was a jerk and they lived with his parents who were complete assholes. At one point, after a fight with her boyfriend, she lived with our friend Amanda and her family for a couple of months. Melissa ended up quitting The Pig and went to work at the tanning salon in the same shopping complex. It was convenient for her since it was just down the street from her house and she could walk to work.
One day I walked into work and my friend Sarah met me at the door before I could even clock in. I'll never forget our conversation. Sarah said "You know in the news they have been saying that they found that woman that was shot and no one knows who she is?" and I said "Yes" she said "Well... it's Melissa." I remember attempting to process what she just told me and then I walked out the door and went home. Thankfully I wasn't fired for leaving.
I had been following the story in the news. It was HUGE news in Charleston and soon would be all over the Country. All I could think about was how from time to time Melissa would come to work with a black eye or a bruise here and there thanks to her "loving" boyfriend. She would say that she "fell" off the motorcycle or something stupid like that but we never believed her.
I called the investigator handling the case because at this point I'm thinking the boyfriend went too far and the officer told me "we already have the suspects and we are looking for the gunman."
At work the next day and saw Harvey "Dusty" Poole, who did the fingerprinting for the North Charleston police department. He was in every piece of news footage I had seen coming out of a moblile home carrying a box. He knew Melissa from shopping at The Pig and we chatted for a bit about the case. I asked him what was in the box and he said it wasn't good, but since the case was still open he couldn't tell me.
The story was that Melissa had gotten into a fight with John (imagine that!) and was drunk and started walking home. A police officer picked her up and brought her to her house and left before she was actually in the house. Whenever we would go out we would always have to wait to until she was in the house because she wasn't allowed to have a key. I'm assuming that when she knocked on the door the boyfriends mother didn't let her in... something she liked to do since they didn't really get along. Melissa then started walking the short distance to the Piggly Wiggly shopping center and was in the wrong place at the the wrong time. She was picked up by Joseph Gardner and Matthew Mack and I believe one other person.
In the trial Mack and Gardner said that Melissa was prostituting herself for drugs, which I have a hard time believing since she had a problem with our friend Amanda dating a black man. I can't possibly imagine Melissa ever getting into a car in the middle of the night with three African Americans!
They took her to a trailer park in N. Charleston where they proceeded to spread the word that they had "captured a white woman" and if anyone wanted to take turns to come over... this is eventually why they were caught. They weren't exactly discreet about it all.
Soon the story was on CNN, Hard Copy, Montel... you name it. It was the same year of the Rodney King verdict so there was plenty of racial unrest in the community. People were so afraid that there would be protest and violence that they pretty much stifled any information that it was a racially motivated hate crime. It went from being National news to not news at all. It's amazing that this can happen when 8 people publicy state that they are sought revenge to teach white people a lesson "for 400 years of black oppression."
They caught Joseph Gardner a couple years after the murder in Philadephia and immediately brought him back to South Carolina for trial. I went to the trial as much as I could. The courthouse was an hour away and I was working days at the time. I remember sitting in back of Melissa's parents hearing testimony from Matthew Carl Mack about everything they did to her IN DETAIL. As a friend I was having a hard time listening to all of it and I can't possibly imagine what her parents were thinking. I introduced myself to Pat and Clare Mclauchlin one day just to let them know who I was and that I thought about Melissa often. I wasn't able to be there the day of the verdict but watched as they read it live on the news. Joseph Gardner had received the death penalty.
This December will the the 16th anniversary of Melissa's death. Over the years I have thought about her and what she had to endure that night in North Charleston. She wasn't my best friend and I hadn't known her for years, but for some reason what happened affected me deeply. Over the years, every once in a while I would Google her name or the name of Joseph Gardner to attempt to get information on his appeals from death row. I could never find any information besides horrible lies from white supremacist web pages so I contacted the Lieber Correctional Institute, home of South Carolina Death Row. Lieber directed me to The South Caroline Victims Assistance Program.
When I contacted S.C.V.A.P. I told them the situation and that I wanted information on Gardners appeal status. They took my information and put me on a notification list after obtaining approval from Melissa's parents. At the time Gardner had received another stay of execution and had a couple more appeals. I had no idea how long the process to and never imagined it would take so long!
Last month I called S.C.V.A.P. since I forgot to update my information when I moved to Middletown at the beginning of the year. The person told me that they had just mailed me a letter and it was returned for a bad address that same day and it was ironic that I happened to call that day. She told me that Gardner had lost his final appeal and that the case was now with the South Carolina Supreme Court. They would give the go ahead and a date would be set. She said that she expected the execution date to be sometime in late November.
So, today I get the email and wonder why they have not called me to let me know... then, by noon I received a phone call from S.C.V.A.P. telling me of the execution date. I asked Sandy Wofford if Melissa's paren't are going. She said that she had talked to Pat earlier and they are undecided. They apparently allow 3 family members to view the execution. Wow.
I was thinking today, if given the opportunity, would I go and watch. I remember when my father was dying and we decided to take him off life support we had the choice to stay in the room or leave. I chose to leave because I had no desire to witness the last breath of someone I loved so dearly. I knew that if I heard a strange sound or an odd breath it would haunt me forever.
Would it be the same with someone that you have absolutely no love for?
Gardner has the opportunity to pick between lethal injection or electrocution. Would seeing his body convulse and then go lifeless have any effect on me mentally? It's such an odd thing to think about when you prize life. The things that this person did to Melissa are heinous and unimaginable... but should I be happy to see him die? I'm not even sure what to think about it all. He had no mercy so I ask myself why I feel a tinge of guilt that his life is ending in a couple of weeks. I can't possibly imagine the feeling he must have had when his attorney told him the outcome of his final appeal and eventually the date that he was scheduled to die. What do you do in those final weeks? You would think that the weeks going into your execution and the fact that you are left there alone with only your thoughts would be torture enough.
Since getting the news today it's all I can think about. How do you come to terms with your own death? What must his family be thinking? How do they say goodbye? I've had to say goodbye to two people due to terminal illness. It's the most heart wrenching thing one could possibly have to do.. to say goodbye knowing you will never talk to that person or see that person again... then you have to walk away. How did I turn my back and walk away without totally collapsing?
This has been such a waste of two lives!
When I spoke to Sandy Wofford at S.C.V.A.P. I told her that I would like to extend the invitation to speak with Melissa's parents. She said that they are aware of me and are updated on my status as well. I told her to give them whatever information they wanted if they would like to be in touch. Hopefully they will take me up on my offer.
The last time I saw Melissa was at Trident Hospital (oddly enough where my Father died). Our friend Amanda had gotten into a car accident and I went to go see her. As I was walking toward the the hospital entrace I saw Melissa sitting on the bench. It was a happy moment because we hadn't seen one another in a while - she was all smiles... that is how I'd like to remember her.