The Woman Who Watched 300 Executions In Texas - FOW 24 NEWS

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The Woman Who Watched 300 Executions In Texas

Texas has executed far more people than any other US state, and one former employee of the state has watched hundreds of executions unfold. She speaks to Ben Dirs about the profound effect that had on her.

It is 18 years since Michelle Lyons watched Ricky McGinn die. But it still makes her cry.

When she least expects it, she'll see McGinn's mother, in her Sunday best, her hands pressed against the glass of the death chamber. Dressed to the nines to watch her son get executed. Some farewell party.

For 12 years - first as a newspaper reporter, then as a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) - it was part of Lyons' job to witness every execution carried out by the state.

Between 2000 and 2012, Lyons saw almost 300 men and woman die on the gurney, violent lives being brought to a peaceful conclusion, two needles trumping the damage done.

Lyons witnessed her first execution when she was 22. After seeing Javier Cruz die, she wrote in her journal: "I was completely fine with it. Am I supposed to be upset?"

She thought her sympathy was best set aside for more worthy causes, such as the two elderly men Cruz bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

"Witnessing executions was just part of my job," says Lyons, whose cathartic memoir, Death Row: The Final Minutes, has just been published.

"I was pro-death penalty, I thought it was the most appropriate punishment for certain crimes. And because I was young and bold, everything was black and white.

"If I had started exploring how the executions made me feel while I was seeing them, gave too much thought to the emotions that were in play, how would I have been able to go back into that room, month after month, year after year?"

Since 1924, every execution in the state has taken place in the small east Texas city of Huntsville. There are seven prisons in Huntsville, including the Walls Unit, an imposing Victorian building which houses the death chamber. 

In 1972, the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty on the grounds that it was a cruel and unusual punishment but within months some states were rewriting statutes to reinstate it.

Texas brought it back less than two years later and soon adopted lethal injection as its new means of execution. In 1982, Charlie Brooks was the first offender to be put to death by needles.

Crime makes Huntsville honest, and has earned it a reputation as the "capital punishment capital of the world". Certain journalists, usually from Europe, have written of the pervasive sense of death in the town, but they clearly arrived armed with an agenda.

Huntsville is a neat little place, set amid the beautiful Piney Woods, on the buckle of the Bible Belt. There are churches everywhere, the locals are polite, and you could spend a few days in the city without ever knowing it was where bad folk met their maker.

Whatever you imagine an execution witness to be like, Lyons isn't it. Over beers in Time Out Sports Bar - the sort of dive you might see on a documentary about a shooting in small-town America - Lyons speaks 19 to the dozen about any subject you fancy. Smart, cultured, and possessing a rapid-fire wit, she makes a mockery of that lazy British stereotype about Americans not doing irony. With Lyons, you bring your A game or get buried.

But when the conversation turns to the things she saw in the death chamber, sass gives way to vulnerability and it's not difficult to detect the toll it took.

In 2000, Texas carried out 40 executions, a record for the most in a single year by an individual state, and almost as many as the rest of United States combined.

Lyons, in her role as a prison reporter for The Huntsville Item, witnessed 38 of them. But her apparent nonchalance, which manifested itself in blithe entries in her journal, was merely a short-term coping mechanism.

"When I look at my execution notes now, I can see that things bothered me. But any misgivings I had, I shoved into a suitcase in my mind, which I kicked into a corner. It was the numbness that preserved me and kept me going."

Reading those early journal entries, it's the mundanities that jump out at you. Carl Heiselbetz Jr, who murdered a mother and her daughter, was still wearing his glasses on the gurney.

Betty Lou Beets, who buried husbands in her garden as if they were dead pets, had tiny little feet. Thomas Mason, who murdered his wife's mother and grandmother, looked like Lyons' grandfather.

"Watching the final moments of someone's life and their soul leaving their body never becomes mundane or normal. But Texas was executing offenders with such frequency that it had perfected it and removed the theatre."

That is not to say Lyons took her job lightly. And when she joined TDCJ's public information office in 2001, her duties became more onerous. Now, Lyons wasn't only telling the people of Huntsville, she was telling the rest of the United States - and the world - what went on in the Texas death chamber.

Lyons described the procedure as like watching someone going to sleep, which was a great disappointment to some victims' loved ones, who thought 'Old Sparky' - the electric chair, by which 361 offenders were put to death between 1924 and 1964 - put on a better show than the less theatrical lethal injection.
The Woman Who Watched 300 Executions In Texas Reviewed by FOW 24 News on May 07, 2018 Rating: 5 Texas has executed far more people than any other US state, and one former employee of the state has watched hundreds of executions unfold...

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