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Woman Who Witnessed Around 300 Executions Reveals The Inmates' Last Words That Have Stayed With Her

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Woman Who Witnessed Around 300 Executions Reveals The Inmates' Last Words That Have Stayed With Her

Michelle Lyons was 22 years old when she first witnessed an execution by the state of Texas.

As a young journalist for The Huntsville Item, she was required to cover all aspects of crime and policing, including the administering of the death penalty to criminals deemed beyond rehabilitation.

After a while, she jumped across to the other side of the fence and became the official spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In her time there between 2000 and 2012, she witnessed nearly 300 executions, all by lethal injection.

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That makes Michelle one of the most qualified people on the planet to discuss capital punishment as the act itself, as well as the repercussions for the prisoners, their families, and the families of their victims.

After leaving the TDCJ, she wrote a book about her experiences called Death Row: The Final Minutes.

Michelle during her time at The Huntsville Item. Credit: Michelle Lyons
Michelle during her time at The Huntsville Item. Credit: Michelle Lyons

Speaking about her first time, she explained: "[As] a young woman, and a journalist, there's a certain amount of pressure on you anyway - constantly - to prove that you can do this job, and you can do the job well. [That] you can be completely unbiased and unaffected by everything.

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"That was really the mindset I had.

"As far as my background, my dad was a newspaper guy so I grew up around journalism and newspapers.

"When I was 16, I'd got my first newspaper job and was a photographer at a newspaper where my dad was the publisher.

"I had to cover some nasty stuff, so at 16 or 17 I was covering fatalities and having to go to wreck scenes and things like that.

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"By the time I was 22, I had a job at a newspaper and covered some nasty stuff there because I covered the police beat, so my mindset was, 'OK, I'm going to walk in and from what everyone has described to me, I'm going to see someone go to sleep.'"

'Going to sleep' in this context refers to the process by which the inmate is administered the lethal concoction of drugs that leads to their death, while strapped to a gurney in a room surrounded by witnesses - including members of the families of their victims and their own family.

Michelle continued: "In Texas, they carry out so many executions that the procedure goes like clockwork.

"When you walk in, the inmate is already strapped to the gurney. You don't see any of the background, you don't see him being brought in, you don't see them placing the needles. He's already there and it's ready to go.

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"It was so clinical and so fast. That was really the thing that struck me when I left.

"I came back to the newspaper, I filed my story, and I think more than anything I was probably more unsettled by the fact that it was so anticlimactic.

"I was more worried because I didn't feel more in that moment. Was that something wrong with me, did that mean something about me?"

The death row visiting booth where she would talk with the condemned. Credit: Michelle Lyons
The death row visiting booth where she would talk with the condemned. Credit: Michelle Lyons
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When Michelle moved out of the newsroom and into the state department, she quickly discovered what life was like beyond the clinical nature of the process in the execution chamber.

This meant meeting with prisoners hours before their death, seeing prison chaplains offer advice on how to 'die well', and learning more about the man strapped to the gurney than just their crimes.

That said, the business of taking a prisoner's life remained fairly unchanged throughout her time there.

She explained: "In Texas, the executions can begin any time after 6.00pm. If the Supreme Court and the federal court are not considering anything, then the execution can proceed.

"The warden will get a call from the governor's office and the attorney general's office, saying it's a go.

"At that point, all of the witnesses are brought over.

"There is a central room that has the gurney in it, and then there are two witnessing rooms that look directly at that room.

"Those rooms are side by side, but they are divided by a wall because you've got the inmate's side, his family - he's allowed five witnesses - they are nearest to his feet so that when he lays on the gurney, if he looks down he can easily see his family.

"Up near his head, if he turns his head to the side, that's where the victim's family is, and they are allowed five witnesses.

"That wall is there so that those two groups never meet."

Michelle witnessed around 283 executions in total. Credit: Michelle Lyons
Michelle witnessed around 283 executions in total. Credit: Michelle Lyons

She continued: "When everyone is in place, you have five victim's witnesses and five inmate's witnesses, and five members of the media [spread between the two rooms].

"One of the prison officials [then] comes in and tells the warden to proceed. At that point the warden gives the inmate the opportunity to make a last statement.

"Inmates are always given the opportunity to talk, and most of them do speak and have something to say.

"Most of them don't talk for very long - there was one execution that I witnessed [the 2000 execution of Gary Graham], it was over 20 minutes he spoke.

"They don't allow that usually. Usually the warden will allow them to talk for about two minutes."

Those statements offer a final opportunity for the condemned person to present themselves for the record.

Some choose to apologise for their crimes, some double-down, and some take their own route, as Lyons explained.

"The statements ran the gamut. There were that would still profess their innocence, some that would apologise for the crime, and some that didn't apologise so much for the crime, but they would talk to their own families and say, 'I'm so sorry I put you through this.'

"Then, you had some that would just do outlandish stuff. We had one guy that was telling jokes, we had another that was referencing a song - it's called 'The Road Goes On Forever And The Party Never Ends' - it's by a Texas songwriter and the lyrics very closely mirrored his tastes.

"Then, you had some that didn't speak at all, and I found that unsettling."

However, the ones who doubled down on their heinous acts have clearly left a mark.

While that didn't happen 'super often' according to Lyons, they are the ones that 'stood out' to her 'because they were so bad'.

The Huntsville Unit, which houses the Texas execution chamber. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Huntsville Unit, which houses the Texas execution chamber. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

She explained: "We had two guys in one night, and the first had a really ugly statement where he was telling the victims' families, 'I hope y'all get in a crash and die on your way home,' and he said, 'You can kiss my ass,' and a whole bunch of stuff.

"It really stood out that night because it was so ugly, but then the second execution afterwards, the guy was so apologetic and was crying and telling the victim's family, 'I am so sorry I did this to you.'

"It was just such a crazy contrast to see in the space of 30 minutes, and it stuck with me."

After the speeches are over, the execution process begins. During Lyons' time, the lethal injection consisted of three drugs, rather than one nowadays.

Michelle explained: "The first drug was a lethal sedative and would basically put you to sleep. The second was a lethal muscle relaxant that would collapse the lungs and the diaphragm.

"The third was a drug that would stop the heart.

"When they're delivered in that rapid succession - because they're delivered over the span of 30-45 seconds, it's very fast - apparently when the second drug hits and the lungs are collapsing is where there can be an issue.

"That's why you would hear that people would describe [in articles] someone coughing or snoring or something."

This point in the sequence is where prison chaplain Jim Brazell's advice on 'dying well' would come in.

Lyons said: "Jim realised that [it was] if people were trying to fight it or not. He would tell them to think of it as a wave.

"You can either fight the wave or you go with the wave. Just go with it. That's how he would describe it to them."

Despite - or perhaps because of - her experience witnessing a large number of executions, Lyons sees capital punishment as much more of a grey area than many who adopt one side of the binary debate.

She admits freely that some of the executions she witnessed 'bothered' her because of the sheer complexity of the cases, but also argues that the application of the death penalty should be viewed through the prism of the victims and their families.

In short, it's not a yes or no answer.

However, her feelings were altered drastically by the birth of her daughter in 2004.

She told LADbible: "When I had a child of my own, you start really thinking about angles of it that you hadn't. It's not that the crimes are any less awful or that the case is any less bad.

"I usually witnessed on the victims' side, but I could hear through the wall this woman crying, because she's watching her son die.

"That really bothered me because I'm thinking - how do you do that?

"How do you stand there and watch that as a parent?"

"I felt so guilty about it, because it's not that the crimes weren't deserving, but as a human it's hard not to have emotions about it.

"I think that [the death penalty] is still appropriate for some crimes, but I think that there are so many problems that need to be addressed.

"One problem that has been addressed is that in Texas they didn't have life without parole.

"Some juries felt uncomfortable with the notion that a person who had committed a certain crime might get out, so they would say, 'We can't have that - death.'

"The number of people on death row has dramatically declined since that has been introduced."

The law of parties - by which a person can be convicted of a crime by participation without actually committing the crime - poses another problem.

"I witnessed a man who everyone knew did not commit the murder [get executed]. He was there and participated, but he didn't do it. The actual killer had made a deal...he got life in prison.

"I had such a problem with it."

Michelle left the TDCJ in 2012. Credit: Michelle Lyons
Michelle left the TDCJ in 2012. Credit: Michelle Lyons

In total, 570 people have been executed in Texas since 1982. That came to a peak in 2000 - while Lyons worked for the TDCJ - when 40 prisoners were executed within one year.

Appetite for capital punishment has dropped slightly among much of the general population of the United States, but she believes that it will take a grave miscarriage of justice to put an end to the practice.

"I think that if it's ever determined that someone innocent has been executed, there's a very good chance, but how horrible is it that it would come to that? You've lost an innocent life.

"The problem that we have in America that every other nation can see is our gun violence.

"We have these huge gun massacres, and as long as we have those and the person could be eligible for the death penalty federally, I don't see it going away.

"What started bothering me in the job was that I wanted people to see both sides of the argument, because it's so complicated.

"I think that there are certain crimes where there is no question we need it, but there are some where do we really need it? I don't think that we do."

'Death Row: The Final Minutes' tells Michelle's account of her time at the TDCJ. Credit: Blink Publishing
'Death Row: The Final Minutes' tells Michelle's account of her time at the TDCJ. Credit: Blink Publishing

"It's not black or white to me. You have all of these people that are caught in the middle that have been personally impacted by it, the victims, the families, it's just sad all the way around.

"There were some men that I met that were so evil and so bad that there was no possible way that I would ever have wanted them walking amongst us again, but that was such a small number.

"I would look at it this way - of the men on death row, if you broke it down into percentages, about 10 percent would be in the 'really evil' camp: the psychopaths, the sociopaths, the 'I really don't give a s*** about my fellow man' kind.

"Then you had 90 percent that either aren't that great people or had a really bad upbringing, or really didn't mean to do it.

"It's hard to say [whether they can be redeemed] because they didn't take anything from me.

"I could look at lots of them and say that they can be redeemed, because they didn't take anything from me."

Michelle's book, Death Row: The Final Minutes is available to buy now.

Featured Image Credit: Michelle Lyons/Wikimedia Commons

Topics: World News, Interesting, US News, crime

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