The Emotional Toll of Witnessing 278 Death Row Executions

With each passing year, the act of witnessing executions weighed on Michelle more and more heavily. Larry retired in 2003, and she felt his absence, wishing for the much-needed levity he had always brought to their work. She got married that same year and in 2005 gave birth to her daughter. “I started thinking about it all in very personal terms after I had a child, and that was my downfall,” Michelle told me. “I had trouble maintaining a sense of neutrality, because I began to empathize with everyone. If I saw the mother of an inmate in the witness room, I would think, ‘I can’t imagine if I were standing here, completely helpless, watching my child die in front of me, knowing I couldn’t do anything to save him.’ And then I would see the mother of the crime victim at the press conference afterward, talking about how her child had suffered in some horrendous way at the hands of whoever had just been executed, and I would think, ‘If I were her, I would’ve wanted him put to death too.’ ” Those around her noticed that she had grown more subdued, and a nurse once pointedly asked her during a routine doctor’s appointment if her job was taking a toll. “One of the hardest things for me to see was how often the victim’s family was let down by the experience, by how quick and easy it was,” Michelle said. “They didn’t walk away feeling like they had in any way been made whole.”

Pamela Colloff, in Texas Monthly, on Michelle Lyons, whose work for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice required her to witness the executions of death row inmates.

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