Michelle Lyons currently works in public relations for a company in Houston. Her last job was as spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and before that she was a reporter who covered the prison system. In those capacities, she witnessed 276 men and two women executed by the state of Texas, and she’s spoken about the weight of that experience to reporter Pamela Colloff for a new Texas Monthly story.
Colloff quotes from a kind of audio journal recording that Lyons made:
“I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”
It’s not a particularly sensational or political piece. But it is a detailed, literally up-close account of exactly what the death penalty is.
She noted in particular the small courtesies that the prison staff extended to the condemned, as when the warden ensured that a pillow be placed at the head of the gurney so the inmate would be more comfortable, or when the chaplain placed his hand on the right leg of the restrained prisoner, just below the knee, to reassure him during his final moments. Later, as Michelle went about her job as TDCJ’s spokesperson, the incongruous civility of these gestures would never be far from her mind.
Lyons and her old prison-system boss, Larry Fitzgerald, both told Colloff that they think often about the people they’ve seen killed; Fitzgerald has dreams about them.
“It’s just that when you look at that number,” Lyons tells Colloff about all the executions she witnessed, “it’s a lot of death.”