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The woman who watched 300 executions in Texas

May 7, 2018 4:14 pm

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 women 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.