January 11, 1985
Columbia, South Carolina
Joseph Carl Shaw is executed for the murder of two teens
On October 29, 1977, Shaw (22) and two companions — James Terry Roach (17) and Ronald Eugene Mahaffey (16) — decided to “see if we could find a girl to rape,” according to Mahaffey. The trio armed themselves with a .22-caliber rifle, and eventually found Thomas Taylor (17) and Carlotta Hartness (14) parked in Taylor’s car. Taylor was robbed at gunpoint. Shaw then ordered Hartness from Taylor’s car into the backseat of his own car, seated next to Mahaffey. Shaw entered his vehicle and gave the signal of “OK, now” to Roach who shot and killed Taylor in his car.
Hartness was taken to a remote area where she was forced to undress before she was raped by all three attackers. After the assault, Shaw asked who would kill Hartness. According to Shaw’s testimony, Roach volunteered to act as executioner. Shaw told Hartness to place her face against the ground but she refused and begged for her life. Shaw drew a circle in the dirt with an X inside and told her to put her head on the ground within the circle. Again, she refused. Shaw ordered her again, and on the third command Hartness complied. Roach shot Hartness in the head though, when it was clear she “wasn’t dead yet,” Shaw took the rifle and shot Hartness in the head again.
Mahaffey’s testimony differs slightly, however. According to Mahaffey, Shaw was the one to shoot Hartness in the head first then Roach fired again after Hartness was “flopping like a chicken.” Regardless of who shot Hartness first, she received a total of five gunshot wounds to her head.
The group left Hartness’s body where it lay, discarded the weapon and any remaining bullets, and checked on Taylor to ensure he was dead. Shaw later returned alone to Hartness’s body to sexually mutilate her with pieces of broken glass, which he claimed were at the behest of voices he heard while under the influence of drugs. “After the murder,” Shaw confessed later, “I was told [by the inner voices] to go out to this girl’s body and tear it up.”
Hartness and Shaw’s bodies were found the next day. Shaw, Mahaffey, and Roach were apprehended soon after.
After his capture, Shaw also confessed to killing 21-year-old Betty Swank 12 days before the Hartness-Taylor murders. Due to the sensationalism of the double murders, their case overshadowed Swank’s. “Betty just got swept aside like she never existed,” Swank’s widower told reporters in 1985. “She was nobody except to me.” Swank had been killed on her way home from work on October 17. Shaw and three teens waited in their car and shot one of Swank’s tires as she passed by. The group stopped to feign an interest in assisting her change her flat tire before taking her to a remote area where she was raped. Swank was dropped off at a trailer park where she said a friend lived and, as she walked away, Shaw shot her 4 times in the back.
Shaw, Roach, and Mahaffey each pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Mahaffey received a sentence of life imprisonment while Roach was sentenced to death. Shaw received the death penalty for the Hartness-Taylor murders and a life sentence for Swank’s.
Shaw became the first person to be executed in South Carolina after the United States reinstated capital punishment in 1976. In the moments leading to the execution, demonstrators who both supported and condemned capital punishment assembled outside the prison walls, some carrying signs reading “Burn baby burn” or “One down, 34 to go” referencing the other inmates on death row at the time, while others held a candlelit vigil.
Roach was executed the following year in 1986; Mahaffey died in 2003.
Ronald Eugene Mahaffey. Find a Grave. Accessed: January 11, 2021. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/29415523/ronald-eugene-mahaffey
“Former Altar Boy Executed in S. Carolina.” Los Angeles Times. January 12, 1985
“Media witnes recounts details of Shaw’s last moments.” The Times and Democrat [Orangeburg, South Carolina]. January 12, 1985
“Shaw dies in S.C. electric chair.” The Times and Democrat. January 12, 1985
Joseph Carl Shaw, Appellant, v. Joseph R. Martin, Warden, Central Correctional Institution, and Hon. Daniel R. McLeod, Attorney General for South Carolina, Appellees, 733 F.2d 304 (4th Cir. 1984). Argued February 9, 1984. Decided: April 26, 1984 (archived: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/733/304/459257/)
“Public forgot other victim, husband says.” The Daily Item [Sumter, South Carolina]. January 11, 1985
Bailey, Moira. “Death penalty foes hold vigil.” The Daily Item. January 11, 1985
Shurr, John. “Death penalty backers cheer after execution carried out.” The Daily Item. January 11, 1985
Weston, Chris. “Shaw’s former lawyer testifies.” The Greenville News. February 1, 1980
Weston, Chris. “Shaw takes stand, denies he killed teen-agers.” The Greenville News. January 31, 1980
Eichel, Henry. “Anguished Struggle To Save And Electrocute A Murderer.” The Charlotte Observer. December 14, 1979
“2 Defendants Plead Guilty In Murder.” The Times and Democrat. December 13, 1977