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You would imagine seeing a man die in front of your eyes would be impossible to forget. But Michelle Lyons watched so many men killed in the execution chamber their last moments merge into one.
Michelle, 42, witnessed 280 executions in 11 years at the infamous Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.
She says: “There are names I don’t recognise at all. I think, ‘I can’t have seen this person die’. But I open their file and there are the full details, including the time of death.
“I obviously watched them die and have no recollection of it. I feel guilty about that. Watching people die never became normal or mundane. There were just too many to remember.”
For most people, seeing 280 people breathe their last would be enough.
But there is another person Michelle would gladly see executed – the drug dealer who shot dead her teenage stepdaughter Kristine two years ago.
Kristine, 17, was shot in the face as she sat in the back of a car driven by her sister’s boyfriend in a botched attempt to buy marijuana in a shopping centre car park in California in January, 2016.
Killer Cameron Frazier, then 21, was convicted of murder and jailed for life.
Michelle says: “At first I couldn’t believe she was really dead, I thought it was a mistake. Then, when I heard her sister screaming down the phone I knew it was true.
“I think the death penalty would have been an appropriate punishment for the life he took. My husband was not going to be satisfied with anything else.
“Her murder buried him, he was heartbroken, and it helped bury our relationship. It made me angry that the guy was going to live and see his loved ones for many years to come.”
Michelle’s memoir Death Row: The Final Minutes, describes her first execution, when she was 22 years old, while future US President George W Bush was Texas state governor.
She covered death row as a journalist for two years before becoming a prison spokeswoman, witnessing all but two executions carried out during her time at the unit, as part of her job.
She watched most from the two witness rooms, one each for the families of the victim and the convict. The process lasted less than 20 minutes.
By the time the families arrived the inmate had eaten their last meal. This was usually a cheeseburger. Anyone bold enough to order filet mignon and lobster was disappointed to discover a “hamburger and fish-stick” waiting for them.
Any lingering hopes of a stay of execution had disappeared and the convict was already strapped to the gurney, the IV lines in their arm ready to deliver the fatal dose of chemicals.
That spared the families the eerie sight of the condemned inmate shuffling meekly into the execution room.
Even those who had previously plotted to escape seemed resigned to their fate.
Michelle says: “The inmates were very rarely restrained as they entered. They just climbed on to the gurney, lay back and held out their arm for the IV lines. I found that deeply unnerving.
"I always thought I would be kicking and screaming to the end. I could not wrap my head around how they could be so docile and resigned. It seemed unnatural.”
Once everyone was in place, the prisoner would say their last words, which could range from a heart-felt apology, to a protestation of innocence or a tirade. One verbally abused his ex-wife, whose children he had murdered.
After an inmate had finished speaking, the warden would remove his glasses – the signal for the execution to begin. The lethal injection took less than three minutes to work, followed by an excruciating five-minute wait before a doctor was called in to pronounce the death.
Michelle says: “That was the bit I would dread. You could see the inmate changing colour in front of you. It was remarkable how fast they turned purple. During that silence, your thoughts would run to all kinds of uncomfortable places.
“Towards the end, I always chose to sit with the victim’s family because they left first. I wanted to get out as fast as possible.”
Michelle often took pity on the inmates. She bought one catfish for his last meal and helped another who lost his leg to diabetes to campaign for a prosthetic leg so he could walk into the execution chamber.
But she then felt guilty for betraying the victims’ families. Despite feeling increasingly conflicted about the death penalty, she kept her thoughts bottled up until she left the Texas Department of Criminal Justice following a row with bosses in 2012.
She has since been haunted by flashbacks, seeing a lonely inmate on the gurney, a tear rolling down his cheek, or a frail, elderly mother struggling from her wheelchair to press her hands against the glass, making sure her son could see her before he died.
Michelle, says: “These thoughts would catch me off-guard. Often it was while I was driving along, lost in my thoughts. Suddenly I would break down in tears.
“Sometimes I think it would be nice not to carry that burden. On death row you see the very worst of what humanity can do to each other.”
Michelle saw some notorious killers die, including Spencer Goodman, who murdered ZZ Top manager Bill Ham’s wife Cecile in 1991. Other inmates became famous for the celebrities who fought to save them.
James Allridge became pen pals with actress Susan Sarandon, who visited him on death row and bought his paintings. Yet Michelle struggles to recall any details about either death.
She says: “There was no theatre. It is like watching someone go to sleep before an operation.”
One execution does stand out. Gary Graham was sentenced to death for murder when he was 17. He spent the next 19 years on death row, always denying the murder, although he admitted a spree of armed robberies, attempted murders and one rape.
A host of celebrities campaigned to save him, including Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, while singer Kenny Rogers offered to pay for a re-trial.
Supporters Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Bianca Jagger all attended his execution in June 2000.
Michelle says: “That was the longest day of my life. There were so many people – anti and pro death penalty campaigners, the New Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, armed SWAT teams.
“Everyone was on edge and it was as hot as hell. I was glad when it was over. It was like a zoo.”
But despite the horrors she has seen, Michelle says: “I don’t think I’ve ever watched an innocent man die.
“But I don’t think every one of them deserved the death penalty. In some cases the jury got the sentence wrong.”
- Death Row: The Final Minutes (Bonnier Books Ltd, rrp £16.99).
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