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Witness to Executions

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Most American states require that members of the law-enforcement community and the media attend the carrying out of the death penalty. Some also require that volunteer civilians with no connection to the crime act as witnesses.

The witness area is physically separated from the execution chamber, and a large glass window allows for viewing. If family members of the convict and his or her victims are also in attendance, they are placed in separate viewing rooms. Authorities try to ensure their paths never cross during the procedure.

For the families on both sides, it is a highly charged and emotional event. Hysterical outbursts happen, and there’s usually some sobbing and tears. Sometimes, members of the victim’s family pound on the glass.

J.W. Ledford Jr. used the occasion of his execution in Georgia in May 2017 to lash out. As he entered the death chamber, he grinned at the witnesses. When asked if he had any last words, he seemed to quote from the 1967 prison movie Cool Hand Luke by saying, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Then he told the witnesses, “You can kiss my white trash ass.” He continued speaking, but his microphone was cut off as the lethal injection began.

The execution room in Oklahoma.

The execution room in Oklahoma.

Media Witnesses to Executions

News agencies always send reporters to write about the inmates’ final moments.

Cynthia Barnett, writing for The American Journalism Review in 1995, interviewed several reporters, including Michael Graczyk of The Associated Press, who had witnessed more than 300 executions. She noted that “it’s impossible to watch an execution without some emotional reaction. They also stress it’s critical to set those feelings aside to ensure their audiences get a complete and accurate account. Emotional detachment, however, may exact a psychological price.”

A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that some journalists who watch executions develop “dissociative symptoms.” Many reported feeling “estranged or detached from other people.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Rhonda Cook has witnessed 14 executions. In September 2015, she wrote, “For the most part, there is a sameness about the executions I have seen. I remember the details on only a few of them.” Ms. Cook seems able to perform her duties as a dispassionate observer.

Author Carl Hiaasen found that more difficult. Cynthia Barnett writes that when he was a Miami Herald reporter, he was sent to cover an execution in 1983. She quotes Hiaasen as saying it was “absolutely compelling and frightening and sobering, and one that will give you nightmares. You have to be almost robotic about the reporting, and then the emotional part hits you later.”

Enthusiastic Volunteers

Teresa and Larry Clark of Waynesboro, Virginia, have seen several executions. Larry was the first to volunteer as a citizen witness. His wife told the BBC, “He was very curious. I dropped him off and I asked him all kinds of questions. Afterwards he said ‘You gotta see this.’ ”

Since then, they’ve seen three executions together, holding hands during the procedure; date night in the death house.

Teresa doesn’t have any sympathy for the condemned prisoners: “It came across my mind, and it still does, that these people know when they’re going to die, and the people they killed didn’t. They get to say their goodbyes, so I really can’t say I felt sorry for them.”

Lethal injection chamber, San Quentin, California.

Lethal injection chamber, San Quentin, California.

The Execution of Dennis McGuire

Father Lawrence Hummer is a pastor in Ohio and a prison visitor for those who seek his spiritual comfort. One such was Dennis McGuire, who was sentenced to death for raping and killing a young, pregnant woman in 1989. He admitted to the crimes.

His date with the executioner was January 16, 2014. After giving McGuire his last sacraments, Father Hummer accompanied his family to witness the execution.

In an article in The Guardian, he wrote, “I felt nauseous before I entered the room, as I had never seen an execution before. As the execution got underway, the nausea passed and was replaced by an intense feeling that I wanted to get out of that room, away from the horrendous act that was playing out before me.”

McGuire was given an untested cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone, and his death was not an easy one. He struggled and gasped for air for about 25 minutes before he was pronounced dead.

Frequent Execution Witness

Michelle Lyons has witnessed the deaths of 278 inmates in the Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, first as a reporter and later as an employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Her first death house experience was in 1998, and she says she “was completely fine with it.”

As the public relations face of the TDCJ, she had to maintain a professional objectivity when briefing the media on executions.

However, in a lengthy profile of Ms. Lyons, Pamela Colloff (Texas Monthly, September 2014) describes how there were inmates “for whom she felt sudden, inexplicable compassion.”

Ms. Colloff writes that, “With each passing year, the act of witnessing executions weighed on Michelle more and more heavily.” She began to empathize with everyone and particularly with the families of the victims as well as the inmates.

In May 2018, she told Ben Dirs of the BBC about the execution of Ricky McGinn in 2000. Dirs wrote that “ . . . it still makes her cry. When she least expects it, she’ll see McGinn’s mother, in her Sunday best, her hands pressed against the glass of the death chamber. Dressed to the nines to watch her son get executed. Some farewell party.”

She resigned from the prison service in 2012 and is often overtaken with memories of the things she saw in the Texas death house.

Reaction of Witnesses

News Director Len Wells was drawn by lottery to observe the execution of serial killer John Wayne Gacy in May 1994. He said, “First of all, it was very clinical. Second, it was extremely eerie, because the second you sat down, they turned out all the lights. I was very nervous, very anxious, it was awful to go through.”

Ann Smajstrla of The North Texas Herald Democrat watched Lester Bower die in June 2015. Later, she wrote, “In all honesty, I am fine; perhaps because of how calm everyone involved seemed to be.” She added “I will always have vivid memories of the Lester Bower execution.”

And, here’s Richard W. Byrne who watched the ultimate sentence carried out on Andre Graham in December 1999: “I had mercy for the guy lying on the other side of the curtain, but I had no sympathy. I realized then that what I was witnessing was not going to change me into an opponent of the death penalty.”

Death Row

Death Row

Bonus Factoids

  • The last official public execution in the United States was that of Rainey Bethea, who was hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky, on August 14, 1936.
  • On May 25, 2000, David Barrett witnessed the execution of James Edward Clayton in Texas. Clayton was put to death for the murder of Lori Barrett, David Barrett’s sister, 13 years earlier. After the execution, Mr. Barrett spoke to the media: “As far as I’m concerned, [the execution is] not painful enough. I think he lived too long and died too easy.”
  • Amnesty International says that public executions are still carried out in Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.
The electric chair is still available as an option for inmates to choose in several states. Its most recent use was in August 2019 in Tennessee.

The electric chair is still available as an option for inmates to choose in several states. Its most recent use was in August 2019 in Tennessee.

Capital Punishment


  • “Covering Executions.” Cynthia Barnett, American Journalism Review, May 1995.
  • “Dissociative Symptoms in Media Eyewitnesses of an Execution.” A. Freinkel et al, American Journal of Psychiatry, September 1994.
  • “I Witnessed Ohio’s Execution of Dennis McGuire. What I Saw Was Inhumane.” Lawrence Hummer, The Guardian, January 22, 2014.
  • “Witness to Kelly Gissendaner Execution.” Rhonda Cook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 30, 2015.
  • “The Witness.” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly, September 2014.
  • “ ‘Never Again’ Says One Witness of Lethal Injection Execution.” Ben Jackey, Channel 14, Evansville, IN, undated.
  • “What it’s Like to Witness an Execution.” Ann Smajstrla, Herald Democrat, June 10, 2015.
  • “Witness to an Execution.” Richard W. Byrne, Prodeathpenalty.com, December 9, 1999.
  • “The Americans Volunteering to Watch Executions.” Gareth Evans, BBC, April 11, 2017.
  • The Woman Who Watched 300 Executions in Texas." Ben Dirs, BBC, May 7, 2018.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor

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