As a reporter and then spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), Michelle Lyons witnessed 278 executions by lethal injection between 1998 and 2012, taking notes about last words and times of death and gathering information for press releases.
She paid attention to the varied reactions of fellow witnesses, from family members to prison staff, and recently shared her story with Texas Monthly.
Lyons saw her first executions as a reporter for a local daily newspaper. She noticed female journalists were the most likely to show sympathy for convicted murderers, like one newspaper reporter who put her palm to the witness room glass to gesture goodbye to an inmate she had interviewed. Lyons recalled one journalist who nearly hyperventilated and another who visibly trembled.
“Here’s the deal: If you’re going to do this job, you better be at least a little tough,” Lyons wrote in a journal.
Former WFIE News Director Len Wells had this to say after he was chosen through a lottery to witness the lethal injection of serial killer John Wayne Gacy in Illinois in 1994. “[I]t was extremely eerie, because the second you sat down, they turned out all the lights. I was very nervous, very anxious, it was awful to go through.”
“I wouldn’t willingly do it again,” Wells added.
Relatives of the Inmate
TDCJ carefully separated witnesses who were inmates’ family members from witnesses related to the victim by placing them in adjacent rooms. Lyons documented this emotional reaction of the sister of John Albert Burks, who had shot and killed a factory owner during a robbery:
As he was gasping his last breath, [his sister] went pretty hysterical, screaming and moaning and sobbing uncontrollably. She was flailing around and it caused her to thump her head up against the glass and the wall. She started screaming, ‘John! John!,’ like she was imploring him to wake up. I tried to imagine what it would be like to watch my brother be executed and for some reason, I understood why of all those witnessing she would be the one who was most hysterical.
Pastor Lawrence Hummer witnessed the lethal injection of Dennis McGuire, the first U.S. inmate executed using a new combination of midazolam and hydromorphone drugs in January, after anti-death penalty manufacturers refused to supply the state with alternatives, according to CNN.
Hummer, who opposes the death penalty, claimed the execution took 26 minutes, longer than the executions Lyons witnessed in which inmates appeared to fall asleep quickly and painlessly.
“His family had been exposed to something horrendous,” Hummer wrote in The Guardian. “They cried and sobbed, held each other, held onto my hand, and at times turned away to hug each other so they didn’t have to watch.”
Relatives of the Victim
Lyons also witnessed the emotional pain for victims’ families, like the relatives of schoolteacher Lori Barrett, who was kidnapped and murdered by James Edward Clayton.
She chronicled the reactions of Barrett’s family, unsatisfied with the execution 13 years after the murder:
Following the execution, Lori Barrett’s brother, David Barrett, who was a witness, spoke at a short press conference. He said that he did not forgive Clayton for what he did, and that he agreed with the death penalty. . . . “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not painful enough,” he said. When asked how he remembered his sister, he began to cry and walked away. Lori’s stepfather, Joe Insall, who witnessed, stepped forward and said, “I think he lived too long and died too easy.”
Such a reaction among victims’ families was common. “One of the hardest things for me to see was how often the victim’s family was let down by the experience, by how quick and easy it was,” Lyons said. “They didn’t walk away feeling like they had in any way been made whole.”
Billy Smith felt that way after seeing his father’s killer, Willie Lloyd Turner, executed by lethal injection in Virginia in 1995. “I was relieved that it was over,” Smith told The Washington Post. “I was happy that justice was done, finally … I would not have felt the same if I had not witnessed it. But watching it the way I saw it, I don’t think made [the loss of my father] any easier. Sometimes I think I have more anger because it was so easy for [Turner].”
Larry Fitzgerald, TDCJ’s public information director who recruited Lyons as a spokesperson, divulged his confusion about whether the death penalty was right or wrong in private conversations with prison chaplain Jim Brazzil, according to Texas Monthly.
“I knew from speaking privately with Larry that he was struggling,” Brazzil told Texas Monthly. “… I’d let him talk, and we’d laugh, and we’d cry, and we’d process it together.”
Although Fitzgerald still dreams about certain executions, like one inmate who “fought like crazy” with six guards when his time came, those aren’t the ones that trouble him most. “What bothers me is that I can’t remember them all,” he told Texas Monthly, having witnessed 219 in total. “There are names I have forgotten.”
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