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.


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.

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