Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


True Crime

walls-unit-huntsville

Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, which houses the state's execution chamber, the most active in the United States. (Photo: Patrick Feller/Flickr)

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

• August 26, 2014 • 8:00 AM

Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, which houses the state's execution chamber, the most active in the United States. (Photo: Patrick Feller/Flickr)

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.

The inimitable Pamela Colloff has a new story out in Texas Monthly called “The Witness.” It’s a powerful portrait of Michelle Lyons, a woman who watched 278 executions by lethal injection over 10 years—as part of her job, first as a reporter on the prison, and then as a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Performing this role “did not come without a cost,” as Colloff illustrates.

In Lyons’ first year reporting on executions for the Huntsville Item, Texas put a record 40 inmates to death. Lyons tells Colloff that always she felt a duty to be dispassionate and objective, and in the early years, this was not difficult. But as the years went on, the experience began to wear on her.

Lyons watched the executions either from a room with the inmates’ family, or from a room with the family members of the inmates’ victims. She felt empathy for both sides—for their grief, and for their disappointment when the closure they hoped for did not seem to come. When she started working for the TDCJ, she occasionally watched the executions from inside the room. And, when she began to allow herself to befriend some of the inmates on death row, that made the experience even harder still.

“No longer is it enough that the death is swift and the arrangements are efficient, the execution must now also satisfy the psychological demands of long-suffering relatives and other intimates of murder victims.”

Lyons was and is still a supporter of capital punishment, but individual cases gave her reason to feel conflicted. “There is a difference between supporting the death penalty as a concept and being the person who actually watches its application,” as she puts it. Her former boss in the communications department, who also witnessed hundreds of executions, more readily acknowledges the toll it’s taken on him. He says he has nightmares, and is haunted by the memories of the people he watched die on the gurney, and by those whose names he can no longer recall.

It’s not surprising that executions, even for people who support capital punishment, and even when the criminals being put to death evoke little personal sympathy because of the nature of their crimes, take a toll on witnesses. (And even executions that go smoothly, and that are not horribly botched.) It’s surprising when there are people who don’t seem affected by the experience in any way.

A few years ago, the New York Times profiled Houston-based reporter Michael Graczyk, who witnessed over 300 executions while reporting on court cases for the Associated Press in Texas. He has a “low-key, matter-of-fact lack of sentiment,” according to the Times. Graczyk says he prefers to watch executions from the viewing room with the victim’s family members in it, simply because that way he “can get out faster and file the story faster.”

Perhaps Graczyk’s remarkable ability to stay cool and unaffected by the process is precisely why he was kept on that beat for so long. As Cynthia Barnett has recounted in the American Journalism Review, for most reporters, covering a state-sponsored murder is not like another day at the office:

Covering an execution—by lethal injection, electrocution, gassing, hanging or even firing squad—can spur journalists to do things they normally wouldn’t dare with any other story. They may dramatize, they may cry, they may write in the first person, they may opine, they may become violently nauseated. Viewing an execution also can trigger short-term psychological trauma that may require professional counseling.

The challenge for journalists covering executions as news events is to put personal feelings aside. Their job is to report what they see and hear—and usually to turn it around quickly—and not focus on their own emotional reactions to the experience. But that very detachment from their feelings, Barnett explains, “may exact a psychological price.”

Clinical research has backed this up. A study written up in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1994 showed that witnessing executions could cause symptoms of dissociative disorder in journalists in the weeks following. Many people answering a survey about their experience in the San Quentin Prison said they felt anxiety and “felt estranged or detached from other people.” The researchers found that the journalists displayed short-term psychological trauma on levels equal to people who had experienced another traumatic event a few years prior, the massive and fatal firestorm in Oakland and Berkeley in 1991.

Journalists on the prison beat (almost always) have to observe and report objectively about what they see. Family members of the inmates’ victims, of course, have an entirely different reason for being present at an execution, and a very different experience of it. Presumably, they’ll see just one execution, and they will attend in the hopes of gaining that oft-cited goal—“closure.”

So do they get it? Annulla Linders, a sociologist at the University of Cincinnati, presented a paper last week at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting that explored that question. In interviews with reporters after the experience, victims’ relatives sometimes express disappointment about the sterile and efficient process, or a sense of frustration over the anti-climax. “It was so quick,” they might say, or “[he] should have gone through a little bit more pain.”

Linders also explained how an inmate-execution doesn’t just change those who witness it; the fact that it is being witnessed changes the execution process as well. There is a disconnect at play here: The policy of capital punishment is presented and carried out rationally, but society also demands an emotional release for those who have been hurt and who will watch the punishment being carried out. Over our nation’s history of executions, Linders found, as the family members of victims became more a part of the process, conversations in the public debate about capital punishment shifted away from “deterrence” and more toward “retribution.”

The logistics of the execution process have changed over time (for instance, including two separate viewing areas and entrances for the family members of the inmate and of the victim). But more than that, the “execution narrative” has shifted.

“No longer is it enough that the death is swift and the arrangements are efficient, the execution must now also satisfy the psychological demands of long-suffering relatives and other intimates of murder victims,” Linders writes.

Even an otherwise disinterested public wants to know that those psychological demands are being met. That’s why every reporter on the prison beat, when filing a story about the latest execution, has to get a quote from the family about “closure,” or at least describe the faces of the family as they watched.

But what about when the public can actually watch the death itself, unmediated by press releases and newspaper reports? A study published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior in 1995 revealed that that, too, had an impact on how people thought about capital punishment in general. Psychologists from the University of the Pacific wanted to explore the personal and political impact of televising prisoner executions, something that has been debated for decades and fought over in court. For their study, they first gauged people’s views on capital punishment, and then showed half of the group a videotape of two actual executions (the other half watched an unrelated nature video). Then they surveyed their attitudes toward capital punishment again.

The researchers found that the people who watched the executions were more likely to change their views of capital punishment, and were more likely to become less supportive of it; 57 percent of the people who watched the executions were less in favor of capital punishment than they had been before they saw them.

The authors of the study concluded that televising executions could indeed have an impact on death penalty policy. “A large majority of voters support the death penalty,” they wrote. “Some of these individuals might question their support for capital punishment if they directly witnessed an execution, perhaps even enough to vote for a change.”

But what still remains unknown is whether that initial impact would wear off as viewers saw more and more executions and became desensitized to them, or whether, as happened to Michelle Lyons and others, the impact of bearing witness would gradually grow over time.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.