S.C. executes 38-year-old convicted in 1992 killing

COLUMBIA -- A South Carolina man convicted of torturing and killing a woman 16 years ago was executed by lethal injection Friday.

Joseph M.L. Gardner was pronounced dead at 6:15 p.m. in the state's death chamber in Columbia. He did not make a final statement, but did turn his head to the witness chamber and mouth the words, "Thank you. I'm OK," to a male cousin before smiling and closing his eyes for a final time.

Gardner was convicted in the 1992 kidnapping, rape and slaying of 25-year-old Melissa "Missi" McLauchlin.

Police said at the time that Gardner and his co-defendants decided to kill a white woman as retribution for slavery, citing a letter found during the investigation that contained slurs and statements justifying revenge. But the victim's family and Gardner's attorneys say they don't think the killing had anything to do with racial revenge.

Gardner, 38, was one of five men convicted in McLauchlin's killing. The Detroit native was the only one sentenced to death.

Moments after media witnesses were led into the viewing area on Friday, a voice saying, "I'm going to pray," could be heard coming from behind a maroon curtain separating witnesses from the death chamber. When the curtain was drawn at 6 p.m., Gardner could be seen lying on his back, clad in a dark green jumpsuit, his arms outstretched.

Black straps held down his chest, shoulders and hands. Several tubes that would administer the lethal chemicals ran from his left arm to a brick wall behind his head.

When the curtain was drawn, Gardner turned his head to his left, raising up as much as possible to mouth words to and smile at the man prison officials identified as his cousin, who nodded in response. The tubes connected to Gardner's arm began to move.

Moments later, Gardner took what appeared to be his final breaths, his mouth falling open after a large gasp, his eyes closing. Corrections officials pronounced him dead at 6:15 after a doctor did not feel a pulse or hear a heartbeat.

McLauchlin's family did not witness Gardner's death. Gardner's attorney, Keir Weyble -- who witnessed the execution and met with him earlier Friday -- later provided reporters with a statement in which his client apologized to McLauchlin's family and said he had been praying for her.

"While I have always been sorry for what I did, the passage of time has allowed me to mature, reflect and experience spiritual growth in ways that were foreign to me as a young man," Gardner said in the statement provided by Weyble. "I deeply regret that my actions deprived Ms. McLauchlin of the chance to marry, have children and experience life with God. I have spent years praying for her, and I encourage all people of faith to do the same."

The attack on McLauchlin brought worries about racial unrest just months after the Los Angeles riots stemming from the acquittals of white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King.

But there was little mention of race at the trial, and the victim's father says now that he doesn't think it had anything to do with the killing.

"We have found over the years people will use the most convenient excuse that they can find for their actions if they get caught," Clair McLauchlin, who lives in Live Oak, a small town in northern Florida, told The Associated Press this week. "In this case, the excuse was 400 years of persecution."