This might be the worst job in America

The Texas death chamber in Huntsville. Chantel Valery | AFP/Getty Images

What’s the worst job in America? I have suggested in the past it’s working at the airport for the Transportation Security Administration. But Michelle Lyons’ may be in the running, based on her story from the BBC.

First as a reporter, then as a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Corrections, her job was to watch people being put to death.

Over 12 years, she saw about 300 people executed.

She was a big fan of the death penalty, she writes in her memoir, “Death Row: The Final Minutes.”

Lyons described the procedure as like watching someone going to sleep, which was a great disappointment to some victims’ loved ones, who thought “Old Sparky” – the electric chair, by which 361 offenders were put to death between 1924 and 1964 – put on a better show than the less theatrical lethal injection.

But she also had to relay the desperate pleas for forgiveness, the anguished apologies and outlandish claims of innocence, as well as Biblical passages, quotes from rock songs, even the occasional joke (in 2000, Billy Hughes went out with, “If I’m paying my debt to society, I am due a rebate and a refund”). Rarely did Lyons hear anger, and only once did she hear an inmate sobbing.

She heard the sounds of offenders’ last breaths – a cough, or a gasp, or a rattle – as the drugs did their work and their lungs collapsed, pushing the air out like a set of bellows. And after the inmate had died, she watched them turn purple.

Lyons got to know a lot of the condemned, even thought they might be friends in another time and place.

She saw a black-and-white world and things didn’t bother her much until 2004. That’s when she got pregnant.

“When I had my daughter, executions became things I dreaded. Usually, any emotion would come from the inmate’s witness room, because while the victim’s family had had a long time to process their loss, the inmate’s family were watching a loved one die. They were just setting out on a long, hard road.

“I had a baby at home that I would do anything for, and these women were watching their babies die. I’d hear moms sobbing, yelling, pounding the glass, kicking the wall.

“I’d be standing in the witness room thinking: ‘There are no winners, everybody is being screwed over’. Executions were just sad situations all round. And I had to witness all that sadness, over and over again.”

Texans love the death penalty, but none of them are in the business of watching executions.

Lyons isn’t anymore, either.

“You don’t see many flowers on the graves here,” says Lyons of the plot where unclaimed prisoners are buried. “And what does it say about me that I can’t recall some of those men I saw executed? Maybe they deserve to be lonely and forgotten. Or maybe it’s my job to remember.”