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Witness to Executions

Michelle Lyons is a twenty-five-year-old reporter for the Huntsville Item, the daily newspaper of Huntsville, Texas, a small town in which all executions in the state take place—248 since 1982. Following are excerpts from what she said during an interview I had with her in early May 2001.

S.K.

My job at the Huntsville Item is to cover the Texas prison system, which includes death row and anything that happens in prisons—hostages or pay raises. I’m not exactly sure [how many executions I’ve covered]. I know it’s between forty-five and fifty. For a while I was keeping track because I keep a log of the different things that happen at each one, but I haven’t been keeping up with it for the last several ones.

People always ask me how I feel about the death penalty and I never answer the question. I have an opinion about it. It’s not so much that my opinion has changed as that I better understand both sides of the argument now. I can see both sides so much better because I’ve worked with so many more inmates’ families and victims’ families: I can see where both are coming from. Everyone involved really in some ways is a victim, and it’s sad. Obviously the victim’s family has suffered a great loss, but at the same time the inmate’s family has suffered a loss, obviously the inmate is suffering a lot because he’s losing his life…. I think I have a better sense of what they’re all going through.

For some reason, there are memories that just stand out more than others. The one that, lately, has bothered me a little bit…I can’t even remember the man’s name, that’s bad. You know, you cover so many of these cases, the names, they kind of start being jumbled together. But what struck me about it was, he was on the gurney, and he just stared at the ceiling the entire time. He never looked at the sides, he never spoke. He just looked at the ceiling and cried. He had no witnesses on his behalf and I thought, you know, that’s really lonely. He didn’t have friends, relatives, or anybody. Nobody had come. The victim’s family was there. At the same time you sympathize with him, but you mostly sympathize with the victim’s family, you know.

On Wednesday from 1 to 3 PM, the media is allowed to go to death row in Livingston, Texas—we call it the Terrell Unit—and talk to the death row inmates. It takes me about forty-five minutes to get there. It’s a really pleasant drive that I hate making because it’s a two-lane road and I get annoyed. I don’t look forward to it or not, it’s part of my job, and I don’t necessarily go there every week. It depends on how many executions are planned: when there are a lot, I go over there a lot more because I have to, to talk to more men.

For the most part, I ask to meet with them. I try to interview all the inmates before their execution, so when they get a date [for execution] I try to get an appointment to go and meet with them to talk about their cases. Once in a while when it’s a bigger case, I try to go and talk to them even if they don’t have a date. For instance, Angel Maturino Resendiz, known as the Railroad Killer, I talked to him. There’s another one, a serial killer, Tommy Sells. They don’t have dates, they won’t have dates for a while but I’ve talked to them. Once in a while I get a letter from an inmate asking me if I can come and talk to him about his case, usually I go to see what they have to say when I get a couple of those letters.

Some of them are very matter-of-fact about what they’ve done. They’re just talking and suddenly one might say, “and then after midnight I shot him in the head.”…It just kind of catches you off guard sometimes.

Most of them are respectful. Actually, a lot of them are very kind—except that you can’t forget they’re there for a reason, they’ve committed horrible crimes. It’s obvious, I don’t have to remind myself. Once in a while I have an inmate that might make me feel uncomfortable. Some of them comment about my looks, or my jewelry, or say “you’re pretty” or things like that…. I just glaze over it and keep going, say thank you, and move on to the next question.

The last man who was executed, he was a young man, a good-looking man, you know, very polite, articulate, and you can sympathize, you know, such a waste of youth, but at the same time, he took a life, that was a waste of life. He took the life of another man. He had kidnapped a man and killed him, and they never really figured out why. It was not the first time, he had had a number of attempted murder convictions.

The visits are about forty-five minutes. They have a two-hour window, but I may not be the only one talking to them. I don’t stay that long. Some of them agree to talk to you but then it’s hard, they don’t necessarily have a lot to say. It’s like pulling teeth to get an answer. Some of them talk. I usually interview them one, two, or three weeks before their execution.

While you might think the inmate would be obviously somber or depressed, those emotions don’t really come across. Many of them are still hopeful that they might win some sort of court relief, many are very matter-of-fact about what is to come. You have to remember that these men and women have had many years to prepare for this and while they may show fear when they are strapped to the gurney, many are able to talk of the prospect of dying without showing much emotion. I do ask them about what they feel is waiting for them when they die: many believe in heaven and believe they are going there. I once had an inmate who had his spiritual adviser find me and say he’d read my article that morning and he appreciated it, it gives you a bit of an eerie feeling to think, the last thing that guy read is what I wrote about him.

Throughout the day [of an execution], I’m not really working very much on the execution. We are a small paper, I’m one of only three reporters, so I might be working on another story. I head to the prison unit at 5 PM, it’s a four-minute drive. Executions are always scheduled to begin after six. They try to keep them where they begin right at six, but any time after six they can start. I show my press ID, get into the building, all the media assemble in the Public Information Office, which is in the building across the street from the prison unit. I’m always there, and Mike Graczyk from AP is always there. He’s already set up with his computer. Usually there are three other reporters, but they change, depending on where the crime took place. There will be two public information officers that are running around. When we get there, they give us a folder, which has what’s called the “Death Watch”: it’s a kind of log of what the inmate was doing in his final thirty-six hours, like 2 PM he’s taking a shower, 4 PM…. It has a paper showing what his last meal request was, and some information like that, statistics, that sort of thing.

At 6 PM, we get a phone call to say it’s okay for us to get to the unit, and we are escorted across. We are searched—we’re not allowed to take cell phones or pagers or any kind of recording device—so [there is a] pat-search and metal wand. And then they split the media between rooms: two or three of us will go with the victim’s family and the rest will go with the inmate’s family. When we walk in, the inmate is already strapped to the execution gurney and the needle is already in place. We’re not taken in until these things have happened.

The two rooms are side by side. They don’t want the victim’s family and the inmate’s family to be in contact. We both have a big window, looking into the execution chamber pretty much from the same angle. There are two doors to that room: one is the door the inmate came in, and there’s the holding cell behind that door. That’s where he stays for the final hours, has his last meal. There’s another door that leads to the small room where the people who are carrying out the lethal injection are, and they have a piece of mirrored glass that they stand behind so they can watch, but we can’t see them because we’re really not supposed to know who’s doing it.

So the needle is in place and a warden and the chaplain are in the room with the inmate…. An administrator will come out—he’ll tell the warden that he “may proceed” and the warden asks the inmate if he has any last words. There’s a microphone that extends down from the ceiling, right above the inmate’s mouth, with speakers in each witness room, so we can hear what he says really well. Then the warden gives a signal—we haven’t yet been able to figure out what it is. We used to know what it was, but a lot of people found out what it was and it got to the point where inmates knew what the signal was—the warden would pull his glasses off. And they didn’t like that, so they switched it and we don’t know what the new signal is.

Then the lethal injection process begins. We can’t tell exactly when it begins because we don’t know what the signal is, but you will know because the inmate will start kind of fading, I guess that’s what it is. The first chemical, a sedative, is so massive that even if they stopped the other chemicals, it would be over. So he just kind of seems to drift off and then he gives the last gasp. Because one of the chemicals collapses your lungs and that’s what the last gasp is. Yes, you hear it distinctly, because he’s expelling his last breath of air. There are all kinds of different sounds they make. Some of them sound like they’re coughing, some have a deep sigh.

After that, we kind of wait around for a few minutes. Then a doctor comes in, checks for vital signs, and declares the time [of death]. And then everyone is escorted out. Usually it’s 6:15 or 6:20. A lot depends in fact on whether they had trouble placing the needle. Sometimes you have a drug user, or just somebody with bad veins, and they might have trouble. There was a case when the needle popped out, but that was before I covered this. So they closed the curtain off in front of the room and took everyone out, they got it fixed and brought people back in.

There have been cases when the inmate had to have extra restraints. They’re all restrained, on the arms, chest, and legs. I’ve seen two or three cases where they had to have extra restraints because the inmate was struggling. One was Gary Graham. He had a lot of restraints, one across his forehead, more around his arms, more around his torso area, his legs…. Yeah, he was struggling. And there was another one named Ponchai Wilkerson, that was a really unique execution. A month or so before, he and another inmate had taken a guard hostage on death row for several hours, and they finally let her go. And he also was one of the seven who had tried to participate in that escape from death row in 1998; he didn’t make it out.

So he was combative, rebellious; when the time came of his execution, he said he would fight and he did, so they had to use force and extra restraints. And he had told one of the officers, “I have a secret,” but he never said what the secret was. So he’s on the gurney and the sedative starts to take effect and he whispered something, we kind of make out he said, “the secret as of Wilkerson,” and all of a sudden he spit out a handcuff key. I mean, he died with the handcuff key sitting on his lips. It was creepy. It was kind of his last jab at the system; I think he wanted to show he could have gone out if he wanted….

There was a night when we had two executions in one night. The first one was really ugly, he was so ugly to the victim’s family, he said, “You can kiss my black ass,” I mean he was really ugly. Well, he was executed. Then the second man, it was such a contrast, I thought it was moving because he wept. He did not only apologize to the victim’s family and say, “I’m sorry for what I did,” he apologized to his own family, he said, “I’m so sorry for what I’m putting you through,” it was very moving. I left the prison at 6:45 and, you know, two had taken place. They did it fast.

Other than that, sometimes they talk about what the chemicals taste like. The last one, in fact, he just said, “It tastes funny, it tastes like rubber.” I guess, because it goes through their body, sometimes it goes up to the back of their throat. Some of them talk about the way it feels, but again, they’re sedated so they don’t talk very long.

You’re watching someone in their final moments, you’re watching families grieve and that of course makes you feel bad. But the difference between me and the officers who’re doing this stuff is that my job is to remain neutral about it. They don’t have to. I need to talk to both sides and make sure that I am fair. Being a reporter you see a lot of unpleasant things, accidents, people burned, children are dead, and that sort of thing, and that’s horrible. You’ve got to remove yourself from that horror or you would never be able to do the job.

People have certainly become more aware [of the controversy over the death penalty]. Maybe capital punishment was something that not a lot of people had given a lot of thought about. As far as Texas is concerned, I think what the legislature is looking at is good: allowing convicts better access to DNA testing, that’s very important. I know that they’re looking at how to handle capital punishment for mentally retarded inmates,* and at giving the possibility of life without parole. They’re talking about possibly imposing a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas; it would have to go before Texas voters. If that happens, I don’t think it will pass. The majority of Texans support the death penalty, and if all of those measures [access to DNA, etc.] passed the legislature, I think Texans would feel comfortable enough for the executions to continue. I think we have too much crime in Texas. We wouldn’t have so many people on death row were there not so many murders in this state. We have 470 people or something like that on death row—that means at least 470 murders.

If I ever quit this job it won’t be because it affects me or anything. I’ve been with this paper for three years, generally you stay with a paper for three to five years and then…you move on. I’m religious, but I keep it separate from my job. I don’t look at the death penalty in the way my religion does; you know this is my job and it doesn’t matter what I feel about it. I’m a Methodist.

  1. *

    On June 17, Governor Rick Perry of Texas vetoed legislation that would have banned execution of mentally retarded prisoners.

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