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MICHELLE LYONS: Okay. Number 25 on my execution log was on July 26th, 2000, and it was a man named Juan Soria. Right before his execution. Soria had actually attacked an elderly chaplain at the Polinsky unit. This chaplain had reached in because Soria had said that he wanted to hold his hand and pray.
When he did, he had a rope and he used it to tie the chaplain’s hand so that he couldn’t pull it back. And he began slashing him with a razor and the chaplain was taken to a hospital and later died, never recovered. Apparently, right before his execution, he had tried to kill himself. he was a self mutilator, so he was a cutter. And these are the notes that I took.
Because he’d been on suicide watch, Soria wasn’t given access to shaving gear or haircuts. But apparently he was told he could have both on his day of his execution, he declined them. So the result was this crazy wild growth of hair, both on his head and all around his face and neck.
He looked like a wild caveman. An I’ve been hiding in the woods type. He looked at the ceiling pretty much the entire time. His arms were covered with towels to cover up all of his wounds. Which I’d been told were pretty nasty. He was really soft spoken. Nobody could tell what he was saying. I did get the impression that this guy was far from being all with it.
He talked and talked in this really low voice, and every once in a while you’d pick up an audible word. Then all of a sudden he looked over towards the victim’s family and then he cried. Just one tear rolled down his cheek. One of the last things he said was, they say, I’m going to have surgery, so I guess I will see everyone after this surgery is performed. It is finished.
He then kept his eyes focused on the ceiling. He whimpered once and gasped and sounded like an animal, letting out this deep whimper. The victim’s father, Ed Bolden, was on hand to witness the execution. I’m still short a son, he said, following the execution, Soria’s execution doesn’t fix that.
My name is Michelle Lyons and I am in Huntsville, Texas, where I was the spokesperson for the Texas prison system. And where I witnessed some 280 executions carried out by the state.
I grew up in Galveston, so I’ve always pretty much lived in the Houston Galveston area. I went to Texas A&M University, which is in College Station and is really only 50 miles from Huntsville. So I’ve really lived most of my life right here. I had an extremely normal upbringing. We were just a regular middle class family in Galveston. From my junior and senior years in high school, I lived in southern Illinois in a tiny town called Benton.
When I was there, my father was the publisher of that newspaper and they needed someone to be a photographer, and so that became my job. As the photographer for the newspaper, I covered a lot of breaking news and spot news. And so I would cover certain wrecks, a few fatalities, fires and things like that.
Really had no issue going and taking pictures at these wreck scenes except– that one time when I was dispatched, it was a girl I went to high school with and she was pretty badly hurt and was bleeding and everything. And I got really upset. I mean, I was her age and here I am taking a picture of this horrible wreck she’s been involved in.
And that’s probably the first time that I was really impacted by any story. What’s interesting though, there was a family in that town, they were the Dardean family. Father, a mother, their small son. I think he was two or three, and the woman was– the mother was pregnant. They were murdered viciously. The mother was beaten to death and in the process of the beating, gave birth to the baby. The baby was then murdered.
The son was murdered, and then the father was murdered and they found his body elsewhere and it was just, it was awful. It turns out that their murderer ended up on Texas death row. His name was Tommy Sells.
AUDIO CLIP: It’s complicated. When people enter my life, they get hurt.
MICHELLE LYONS: He was a serial killer and had done just some awful things, not obviously to this family, but just across the US. And I actually met him when I was working at the newspaper. And then, of course, got to know him when I worked for the prison system. And wrote a story for the paper in Illinois about him. Ended up in his position where I’m sitting face to face with this man. It was really bizarre.
AUDIO CLIP: When you look at me, you know what hate is. Two words I don’t like to use is love, and sorry, because I’m about hate.
MICHELLE LYONS: As soon as I could, I got back to Texas and went to college where I studied journalism. My first real job, I guess, was at the Bryan College Station Eagle, where I was the newspaper reporter. I started as the obit girl. I wrote all the obituaries and just did little random story assignments that came in. Then I started covering the police beat, which I thought was really exciting. Because it was always something breaking and you never knew what was gonna happen.
I ended up leaving the Bryan Eagle and moving to Huntsville. My father was actually the publisher of the Huntsville Paper at the time. And it was actually the editor that went and told my dad, hey we hired a new reporter. And my dad said, oh, great, who is it? Your daughter. One of my assignments eventually became covering the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the Texas Prison System. I started covering it in 2000.
AUDIO CLIP: Huntsville, Texas is a prison town through and through. Road signs point to some of the seven state facilities here known as units, which stalk the landscape.
MICHELLE LYONS: In Huntsville, that’s the biggest employer. And I thought, this is what people wanna read. Let’s do a profile of this person or that person. They literally do make license plates. People always joke about that. That does happen. They also have all these industries that people don’t know about.
They make the mattresses for all the state universities in Texas. They do a school bus repair shop at the Ellis unit here in Huntsville. Where all the old school buses in the summer when they’re all nasty and ratty. They send them over to this unit and the inmates work on ’em and make ’em pretty again. And make ’em run.
And it’s just a lot of cool stuff that people didn’t know. Part of that also became covering all of the executions that take place in Texas. I had actually covered my first execution in 1998 when I had been in Huntsville for a few months. When the girl who was previously covering the prisons had to go somewhere else, so I stepped in for her.
Before I witnessed that first execution, I spoke at length with the reporter who was regularly covering them. So she told me what to expect and she said, you will just watch someone go to sleep. And that’s exactly what happened. The first execution that I ever witnessed was in October of 1998, and it was a man named Javier Cruz.
He was out of San Antonio. He had basically beat two men to death with a hammer. And so knowing that and then going into the execution, I really didn’t have a lot of emotion about it. Because I thought, I’m gonna watch someone go to sleep. And in contrast, he beat someone to death with a hammer. But the process for every execution is exactly the same.
Executions in Texas can begin after 6:00 PM. So if there are no appeals pending, then the warden gets a call from the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office saying, you can proceed. At that point that’s when they move the inmate from the holding cell into the chamber. There are horror stories that, oh, they’re in there waiting.
They’re strapped to the gurney for hours waiting on the courts to rule, and that is not true. They don’t leave that cell unless the execution is gonna happen. So once they leave and they’re on that gurney, it’s happening. When the inmate is brought from the holding cell, he is escorted by a five member, they call it the tie down team. Because their whole job is to tie him to the gurney. And it’s not really tying so much as it is strapping him to the gurney.
But they’re called a tie down team. The inmate walks into the execution chamber, and they have a little step stool that he steps on, and he steps on the gurney and stretches out his arms. The five members who are each assigned to a body part, so you have one for each arm. One for each leg, and then one person who puts the straps across the trunk of the inmate’s body.
Then the IV team comes in. And they’re completely anonymous. I mean, they come in, they establish the IV lines, they get the saline flowing, and then they go back behind a wall with a one-way mirror. So they can see in the room. But nobody can see them. Once the victims are in place and they’re in their room, the inmates witnesses are brought in.
And they’re brought into a separate room that’s adjacent to the victims. So you have this wall in between them where they never see each other, but they can hear each other. The wall’s not very thick. Once all the witnesses are in place, the warden is given permission to proceed. And he tells the inmate that he can make his last statement.
And there’s this microphone that comes down from the ceiling that rests right above the inmate’s mouth. So the inmates given his opportunity to make a last statement and they say everything you can imagine. I mean, there are some who do not acknowledge the victims at all and they will only talk to their family and are apologetic. You know, I’m sorry for putting you through this.
Or they just tell their family how much they love them and don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. There are some that address the victim’s family and will tell them, I’m so sorry for what I’ve taken from you. I hope my death gives you peace.
It’s always been protocol that the prison system then waits another couple of minutes before they bring in a free world doctor. Free world is very much a prison term. You’re either in prison or you’re free world because that’s where you come from. They would bring in a free world doctor who would pronounce the inmate dead. And then they would cover him with the sheet and then all the witnesses would leave.
When I came back from that first execution, I did what I did for any assignment, if I covered a city council meeting or something. I came back and wrote the story up and I went home. Didn’t have a problem with it, that it appeared the inmate went to sleep, and that’s exactly what had happened. That’s what happened in almost all the executions I witnessed.
For many years Death row was housed at a unit called the Ellis Unit. Which is about 20 miles outside of downtown Huntsville. In 2000, all of the death row population, all the men, were moved from Ellis to a unit called the Polunsky Unit, which is in Livingston, Texas, and it’s about 45 miles east of Huntsville. That’s where Death Row is housed. It is a very high security building. There is a ton of razor wire around the area that houses death row as well as electric wire.
The unit is officially called the Huntsville Unit, but it, you’ve ever seen it goes by the slang term, the walls. Because of these huge red brick walls that surround it. It’s the oldest prison unit in Texas. It was the original unit that held death row, and it’s always been the site of the Texas Death Chamber. When Electrocutions were carried out, that chamber was there at the Walls unit. And lethal injections have always been there.
That’s actually by law, the executions have to be carried out in Huntsville. So on the day of an execution, the inmate is able to visit with his family and friends for four hours during the morning. So they’re– his family or friends will come to Polunsky and they will visit for four hours. Then the visit stops and the inmate is loaded into a van and he has driven the 45 miles to the Huntsville Walls unit.
AUDIO CLIP: I was 22 when I witnessed my first execution. And then by 2000 when I was covering them, I was 24, turned 25 that year. I know we need to expand the determinant sentencing statutes in the state of Texas. We need to have bootcamps, reforms schools and detention centers.
MICHELLE LYONS: The thing about 2000, aside from the fact that there were more executions in Texas than ever before, was that Governor Bush was running for president. So we had national media all over us making a really big deal about Bush’s stance on the death penalty.
AUDIO CLIP: Are you in favor tonight to say that you would support lowering the capital punishment age for juveniles from 17? I would seriously consider a bill down to 14 years old. I think we ought to try 14 year olders as adults.
MICHELLE LYONS: In 2000, that’s actually the year that Texas had the most executions ever. They had 40 executions that year. And I witnessed 38 of those. Two of them I missed because I was out of town covering the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which is the governing board of the prison system. I was outta town and another coworker took those.
It was just another job assignment. It was something that needed to be done. It needed to be done well, and that’s how I tried to approach it. I’ve seen a couple of inmates who have said some really awful things from the gurney. There was one who told the victim’s family, I hope you get in a wreck and die on your way home from this tonight.
There was another one who had to have called his ex-wife every name in the book. I mean, was so bad that the warden actually started the process while he was in the middle of talking to cut him off because it was so foul. And they couldn’t even post his last statement on online because it was so bad. One of the executions that bothered me so much, I truly don’t remember when I saw it.
I truly don’t remember what he did, all I can picture is his face. And in that execution, there were no victims witnesses and there were no inmates witnesses. The only people there were me, a reporter and a prison official. We were the only ones in the actual witness room. And when we went in, he was just staring at the ceiling, just blinking.
And he never turned his head to the right to look at us. Just kept staring at that ceiling and when the warden came in and said, do you have a last statement? He didn’t speak. He just barely shook his head no, and just kept staring at that ceiling blinking. It tears me up to this day because I thought there’s nothing more alone than what I’m seeing right now.
As a reporter, I would witness from both sides. They would kind of put me in an alternating rooms. One execution I would witness with the victims. Another I’d witness with the inmates. And there was an execution of a man named Ricky McGinn and this was not a good person. I mean, he had raped and killed his stepdaughter. I mean, it was just, it was an awful crime.
And I was witnessing on the inmate’s side, and his mother was there. And they had said that she’d had a stroke a few days before the execution, but had insisted she had to be there. And so they brought her in in this wheelchair. And she was just this very elderly lady and she was wearing this floral dress and her pearls.
And I just remember thinking– she’s wearing like her Sunday best and they’re wheeling her in to come and witness her son die. And when he was on the gurney, she pushed herself up to stand so she could put her hands on the glass. There was no question he deserved it. But you were still watching a mom watching her son die. In covering all of the different aspects of the prison system.
I got to be friends with Larry Fitzgerald, who was the spokesperson for the prison system. And for his boss, Larry Todd, who was the director of the Public Information Office. And they took me to a ton of units and let me see a lot of things. And we just had a really great working relationship and they knew they needed to bring someone on. So when they posted the job, they let me know about it, and I absolutely wanted it.
Because I knew it would give me greater access to something that I found so fascinating, and it paid a lot more money. Eventually I became the head of that office. I was the director of public information. As a reporter, I probably witnessed, maybe as many as 60 executions. The bulk of the executions that I witnessed was as a member of the media office for the prison system. Where the victim was not released alive.
AUDIO CLIP: The defendant shall be put to death. He was pronounced deceased at 6:36. Killed in April of last year, and tonight just after six o’clock, Cobb was put to death by legal injection.
MICHELLE LYONS: There are not a ton of women in leadership at the prison system. I mean, there certainly are some, and I was definitely not the first. I was the youngest to ever be a director at the prison system, and apparently the only female to have had that role. As far as the being the spokesperson. It was not called public relations.
It was called public information. Because it’s difficult to do public relations or proactive media for a prison system. It’s mostly reactive media. The biggest difference from covering the prison as a reporter and then being their spokesperson was that I had way more access than I had before. When the warden would visit with the inmate ahead of the execution, he would let them know that they’d be given an opportunity to make a last statement, and that they would have a few minutes to do so.
For the most part, the inmates gave really short last statements, I mean under a minute. Some cases, I mean seconds. I saw one execution where I thought the inmate was gonna filibuster if he could. It was the execution of Gary Graham in 2000, which was a really incredibly high profile execution.
AUDIO CLIP: There’s no question that Gary Graham may very well die for an offense that he did not commit.
MICHELLE LYONS: This was the execution where Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Bianca Jagger, they were all here. Black Panthers came. The KKK came, I mean, it was a very tense long day with all these groups fighting and such. This inmate went on for a good 20 minutes, maybe longer. I really thought was gonna try and talk until midnight. Because at midnight the death warrant expires. He ended up winding down and the execution went through.
We have this death row media day every Wednesday. Where media from all over the world would put in requests to come and talk to the different inmates. In conducting these media days, I got to know a lot of the men on Texas Death Row. Because we’d wait for the media to come in and then in, if it was a TV crew, I mean, they would take forever to set up. So during that time, a lot of times I would talk to the inmates.
And the ones who had big cases or there was something interesting about their case would just come out week after week after week. So I felt like I got to know some of them pretty well. That makes it a little bit more complicated because you’re talking to this person on just a normal human level. In some cases, they were my age and a few cases they were younger than me. You just related to them just like a normal person.
In some cases I’d walk away going, if this guy wasn’t in prison, I think we’d be friends. The next thing you know, you’re visiting with them 10 feet from the execution chamber and they’re about to die. One time made me actually tear up and I was mortified. It was an execution of a man named Napoleon Beasley. And Napoleon was about my age and had been 17 at the time that he committed the crime, and it was an awful crime.
He and some friends had followed this elderly couple back to their home. They were driving a Mercedes, not even a nice new one, but just an old Mercedes. And they decided they were gonna go and carjack him. So this elderly couple pulls into the garage and Napoleon and his friends get out and attack him. They shoot the man to death. The woman played dead on the floor of the garage and they took off in the car.
It turns out that that couple, their son was a federal judge. So obviously it was a high profile case and he ended up getting the death penalty. Getting to know Napoleon. I think that it was clear to me that if he ever got out someday, that he would be a productive member of society. He was a good kid and started running with just some really bad people.
When he was executed, myself and my old boss, Larry Fitzgerald, had gone to talk to him before the execution and were chatting. That’s when I felt my eyes start watering up because I realize I really don’t wanna see this. It’s not that I didn’t think that he deserved it for what he did. And if that had been my mother and father, I’d absolutely want him to die for it.
And it was hard. It was hard to watch. I hated doing it. The thing too that really struck me was that it was just a couple of months later when the Supreme Court ruled that you could not be executed for a crime you committed when you were 17. So if he had just been able to hang on a couple of weeks, he’d still be alive today.
As long as I witnessed all those executions, Texas was using a three-drug method or a three-drug cocktail. Each of the drugs is delivered in a fairly rapid succession and is administered within two minutes. And really, the inmate is not gonna recover from the first. There’s an IV placed in each arm.
AUDIO CLIP: One IV is used as a backup in case the other one fails.
MICHELLE LYONS: In the three-drug method. The first drug is an anesthetic that puts the inmate to sleep.
AUDIO CLIP: These are something that just should sedates somebody and makes them unaware of their surroundings.
MICHELLE LYONS: The second drug is a muscle relaxant that collapses the lungs and the diaphragm.
AUDIO CLIP: A paralytic. It’s called vecuronium. It paralyzes the muscles in the body, including the diaphragm you can no longer breathe.
MICHELLE LYONS: And the third drug stops the heart.
AUDIO CLIP: And the last drug of potassium chloride, which essentially causes cardiac arrest and causes death.
MICHELLE LYONS: So again, when delivered in this rapid succession within two minutes, the inmate is basically deceased within that two minute. There were issues with getting the drugs because different manufacturers when they would find out what these drugs were for would stop making them. And when I was still at the prison system, we did have to change out one of the drugs because it was no longer being manufactured.
Since I’ve left, Texas and many other states have gone to just using one drug. The issue apparently, with it being that it really had not been tested for executions and it’s not readily available. So some people are having to go to compound pharmacies, which are not regulated the same as drug manufacturers. So there’s different debates and issues with that. I never saw any inmate who appeared to suffer.
I never saw any inmate who appeared to be in pain. The only reference I ever heard inmates make to the drugs was that they could taste it and that it tasted really bad. A few of them said, oh my gosh, I can taste it. This tastes nasty. They would make reference to the way it taste, but nothing about how it felt. In contrast, I had read an article not long ago about one of the inmates with the one drug method saying, my whole body feels like it’s on fire. That just never happened in Texas. Anybody who’s ever been in the death chamber will tell you it is the weirdest smell. Nobody can describe what it is. Somebody told me that in the air ducts, there’s some kind of charcoal filters. I don’t know why that would be or what the purpose of a charcoal filter is. For a long time after I would be somewhere and just think, oh my gosh, I smell execution chamber, and it’s a weird thought.
We made sure there was always media on both sides because you had to have media that were there to report anything that happened on the victim’s side. If the mom and dad were crying or there was one execution where the brothers high fived each other. The media needs to be there. Same on the inmate side. There was a sister that was kicking the wall and pounding on the glass.
One case, when I was a reporter, a family member that turned and turned on us and was screaming at us. I mean, you have to have someone there to report it. There were women, and I did witness two women be executed. To me the one of the biggest differences with witnessing executions of the men versus the women, I don’t know how to best say this. The women were a little bit more to themselves.
First woman that I witnessed being executed was a woman named Betty Lou Beets. Billed as the type of black widow. I mean, she would kill her husbands and buried them in the backyard. I had never seen her until I saw her on the gurney. And the main thing I was struck by was just how tiny she was. I mean, she looked like a little grandma. But obviously was little meaner than most people’s grandmothers.
The second woman that I saw executed was a woman named Frances Newton. Frances was there for murdering her children and her husband, and I was pregnant at the time, and she would ask me about my pregnancy and stuff. And it really bothered me because this is the woman who’s killed her kids. My thing was kind of, hey, don’t focus on this.
This baby you don’t need to worry about. Yeah. But she was always very polite and very, very nice. But I did notice in both cases they didn’t request last meals. I don’t know, maybe that’s just more of a man thing that they asked for food, but the women didn’t. And neither woman said anything on the gurney either. Neither woman gave a last statement.
Long as I had been working for the prison system, inmates were allowed to select a last meal. Now, the caveat was that it had to be items that were available at the prison already. So you could not request a filet mignon and scalloped potatoes and stuff. Actually, you might be able to do scalloped potatoes, but not the filet. So a lot of inmates would request things like hamburgers, that was the most popular.
Macaroni and cheese, lot of breakfast foods. It’s all normal stuff. You would once in a while have somebody that requests something crazy. There was a guy that requested dirt because apparently he wanted to do a voodoo ritual and they didn’t give him dirt. They gave him yogurt, which was weird. And I think it’s only because it kind of rhymes, but not really.
There was another person that for their last meal requested like Peace on Earth. Which that’s a nice gesture, I probably would’ve gone with mac and cheese. There was really very rarely something that I just really had a conflict with. The exception was when the decision was made to stop the last meals. There was an execution scheduled of a man named Lawrence Brewer.
A lot of people know him because he was part of the awful Jasper dragging case. Where it was three men who basically murdered, by dragging, a black man in Jasper, Texas. For his last meal, he requested a ton of stuff. It was a really lengthy request.
AUDIO CLIP: Brewer initially requested a long list of foods for his final meal, including two chicken fried steaks, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger, three fajitas, a pizza meat lover special, a pint of blue bell, homemade vanilla ice cream. And three root beers.
MICHELLE LYONS: On the day of Brewer’s execution, I walked back with the warden and the chaplain. And we were standing while the warden would go over the information with the inmates. And Brewer looked at him and he said, warden, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to eat, because he was obviously nervous. That being said, the warden said, we’ll fix you a little something and have it back here in case you change your mind.
That night, the reporters wrote the story after the execution. And they reported what he had requested. It hit the media. Senator John Whitmeyer in Houston, read what the inmate had asked for, and he went absolutely ballistic.
AUDIO CLIP: It’s just nonsense. It makes, it’s no common sense. Not only costly, but it’s the principle of the matter that drives me to end it.
MICHELLE LYONS: And he demanded immediately that the practice of last meals be stopped. Our executive director immediately caved and canceled last meals. And I just completely disagreed with that. It was an uninformed knee-jerk reaction that completely changed that system. I think to me, probably one of the hardest things about the job, aside from the executions, was that you never could get away from it.
You were on call 24/7. Didn’t matter that it was my weekend, the wedding weekend. Didn’t matter if I was on vacation in Mexico, it didn’t matter that I was at a doctor visit. Finding out the gender of my unborn child. You never could get away from it. And if you didn’t respond, then that was an issue. I don’t wanna ever say it was routine because I mean, it’s such a huge thing that you’re witnessing. I mean, you are witnessing someone’s final moments.
No matter how you slice it you are witnessing someone’s last moments on earth. And that’s a big thing. Could they be routine from the standpoint of there were a lot carried out? Yes. But every execution had some important aspect. And again, the biggest being that this was a person who was paying for their crime with their life.
I started working for the prison system in 2001, and I gave birth in 2005. So roughly halfway through my career I had my child and it made things a little bit more complicated. First of all, when I was pregnant, I was way more fearful going into the prisons. Whereas before I really didn’t have any apprehension. I was terrified of someone punching me in the stomach.
It is still prison, and those things can happen. They do happen to correctional officers who were walking down a cell run and someone punches you in the face for no reason. Witnessing the executions while I was pregnant was really kind of a stressor for me. It really bothered me because they say the babies can hear things in utero. And I thought, oh my gosh, is my baby hearing this?
I don’t want my baby hearing these last words. And that kind of stuff bothered me. And then as someone who loves horror movies, I kept thinking of that movie where the spirit could just travel to different bodies. And thought, oh my God, this spirit’s gonna come into my baby. It ran the gamut from being cautious to just being really paranoid. It was really never an option to pull back on the execution.
So you didn’t really have the option to ever sit one out. You had to be there and it was part of my job and I knew that going in. I did not really fully consider how it might affect me because it’s just a cumulative effect. I never felt like it wasn’t a good environment until towards the end where I really just wasn’t having the opportunity to be transparent.
And in some cases would be told I needed to tell the media certain things that just weren’t true and I wouldn’t do it. I was having a lot of problems and a lot of issues with getting things approved and allowing the access that I felt we needed. One of the last arguments that I had with the executive director was over allowing a television crew out of San Antonio into the execution chamber.
He did not wanna do it, and my point was, okay, not only is this a reputable media, this is Texas Media. These are our people and they want to shoot footage in a chamber. Media is always changing. A lot of people went from beta to now that people are doing hd and they needed HD.
And I mean, I fought and fought and fought and they would not ultimately let ’em in. And I think all I really did was make them angry. Because I wasn’t, I guess, on the side of the prison system, but I just didn’t see any point.
Again, I think as a state agency you need to be transparent. But my gosh, especially when it comes to executions, I mean, that is the ultimate act of government and people have a right to know and see. And we obviously, we don’t televise executions, but you have media there to do the next best thing and tell the public exactly what’s going on.
And I feel very strongly about that still. In the end they basically pushed me out. And to make a very long story short, I filed a federal lawsuit against them and won. My lawsuit was based on discrimination, gender discrimination. They alleged that I had not been keeping my time sheets properly. All these men had done it and nothing happened.
And then I did it and all of a sudden it became an issue. There was more behind it. And will I ever know what was all behind it? No. Do I think it also probably has to do with the fact that I went to bat for the reporters? Probably. I think I wasn’t enough of a yes man or woman. Do I have a bitter taste in my mouth? Yeah. I did this really hard job that has left an impact on me. And will always leave an impact on me that I’ll never be able to escape and never really be able to wash my hands of. And at the end, I feel like I was thrown away.
Since leaving the prison system. I was out of work for a few months in the summer. I spent a lot of time at the swimming pool with my child. My first job after the prison system, I worked as the press officer for the Consulate of Israel to the southwest. It’s funny because I’ve always had different prison memorabilia in my office. So when I went to work there, I took it with me.
In fact, one day, one of my coworkers, his son was there and he brought his son by and said, this is the woman I told you work for the prison system, and made me show him this, these different things. I mean, I had a shank that I used as a envelope opener, and I had these little tiny dice that were made out of like compacted toilet paper. And I mean just all kinds of random stuff that I’d picked up along the way.
I really never let myself travel down a very introspective road where it came to executions until I left the prison system in 2012. I live in Huntsville and I work in Houston, so I have a, a commute of about an hour each way. And it gave me a lot of time to think, and I kept finding myself thinking about these executions.
And thinking about the different things that I saw and the different people that I met. When I started witnessing the executions, I thought that it might be kind of interesting to just take notes after each execution. Just so that I could kind of keep my thoughts straight.
So a couple of them that stand out to me are these. Richardson was a pretty big guy. I was on the victim’s side that night, and when we walked in you could see this big tear running down his right cheek. He wanted the microphone turned off, which cannot be done. And wanted to know if his family could talk back to him. He asked them to pray with him and then he launched into a very lengthy prayer asking not to be sent to hell.
The victim’s daughter was emphatic that she was glad to have watched Richardson die. She was 12 when her father was killed. And 25 when she witnessed and said, I’ve waited half my life for this. There are some details I don’t remember at all, and yet I obviously wrote these. Yet I don’t have any recollection of the execution or the notes at all. Number 20 on my execution log was on June 14th, and it was an inmate named John Albert Burkes, who was 44. And he had been executed for the 1989 shooting murder of a man named Jesse Contreras, who owned a tortilla factory in Waco.
And I had written as he was gasping for his last breath. His sister, Nancy Cobb, was hysterical, screaming and moaning and sobbing uncontrollably. She was flailing around and it caused her to thump her head up against the glass and the wall. She started screaming, John, John. Like she was imploring him to wake up.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to watch my brother be executed. And for some reason I understood why of all those witnessing, she would be the one who was most hysterical. She started saying something about how she had to get out of there and she was removed from the room while the others stayed and wept.
Basically when I got to the 40th execution, I wrote one sentence and I just stopped. In the very last entry, it was January 9th, 2001. I wrote Jack Wade Clark was executed for the 1989 rape and murder of 23 year old Melissa Garcia of Lubbock. That’s it. I wrote not one thing about it.
I miss what the job was when I took it. I missed working with the media. I missed going to the units. I miss interacting with the correctional officers and the wardens, and to an extent the inmates. I do not miss the executions. I don’t miss witnessing the executions in any way.
I don’t think that I had really given a whole bunch of thought to the death penalty before I moved to Huntsville. And even then, really before I started to cover the death penalty. At that time, I really felt like I was pro-death penalty, and honestly, I still do. I support the death penalty and I think it’s an appropriate punishment, for a lot of crimes.
What ended up happening through this process of witnessing all of these executions and in total, I probably witnessed 280 or so, maybe a little bit higher. My support for it didn’t wane, but as I got to know some of these inmates, I felt conflicted because I thought, I don’t know that I would’ve given this person the death penalty.
Anybody who thinks of it as an abstract thing– it’s easy to say, I support the death penalty, or I don’t support the death penalty when it hasn’t impacted you in one way or the other.
If you haven’t had a loved one murdered and you haven’t had a loved one executed, you can have a million opinions on it. But I think until it actually impacts you, you don’t really have a right to feel that strongly about it one way or the other. It’s a sad situation. I wish we didn’t have to have a death penalty. I wish people weren’t going around and just murdering and, and stealing loved ones from others. I’m just making a point that it’s just hard when you see it over and over and over again, you know?
And then being the person that just day after day, you have to go and watch it. Because it’s just really intense and it’s dark and it’s negative, and I was a conduit. Yeah, the funny thing is I’ve never had any dreams about it except one when my grandmother, who I was very close with, was still alive.
I had a dream that she was being executed for killing her husband. Which when I told her about the dream, she thought that was the funniest thing ever. It bothered me because the whole theme of the dream was that I was watching my grandmother be executed. But that I couldn’t cry because I had a job to do. Which I’m sure obviously has a lot of meaning on a deeper level that I don’t really care to think about. But that was the theme of the dream.