Michelle Lyons was just 22 when she watched the first man, Javier Cruz, die. "I was completely fine with it," she recalls in her diary. "Many, many people asked me if I was OK. I felt bad, as if: 'Am I supposed to be upset?'"

Watching men being put to death as punishment for their crimes was part of her job and, besides, she had more sympathy for the two elderly men Cruz had beaten to death with a hammer. She was to watch hundreds more.

In the early years, she would fret that seeing an endless conveyor belt of condemned men being clinically dispatched by lethal injection didn't seem to bother her at all, reports Daily Mail.

It wasn't until she became a mother that she began to change her mind and think more profoundly about issues of life and death.


It led her to reconsider her previous, straightforward "eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth" view of justice and accept that America's use of the death penalty was not universally approved. As we shall see, she began to feel for the desperate mothers of the condemned, and would cry the whole way home after the execution.

Between 2000 and 2012, Michelle saw around 280 people — just two of them women — executed by the authorities in Texas, the state which executes by far the greatest number of prison inmates in America.

First as a reporter in Huntsville, the town which houses the state's death chamber, and later as a prison spokesman, she rarely missed an execution. Since 1982, Texas has only used one method: lethal injection, a fatal cocktail of drugs or a single drug that abides by the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment".

For most people, witnessing someone dying is a profound experience they never forget. But Ms Lyons admits she saw so many executions — sometimes performed quickly in succession, a so-called 'double-header' in prison parlance — that they merged into a blur.

She can only remember many of them now because she took notes at the time.

"I can't remember his name, his crime or what Texas county he fell from," she writes of a middle-aged black inmate whose execution was attended by no family or friends. "But the contours of his face are etched on my mind, as if he was executed yesterday."

She has now written a book, Death Row: The Final Minutes, about her peculiar career and the deep effect it ended up having on her.

Executions in the U.S. often command a quite large audience, filling every seat in the viewing rooms attached to death chambers. Other times, though, nobody is there to see the condemned man or occasional woman die.


The families of the victims and the doomed are each assigned separate viewing rooms, but the authorities generally require people unconnected to the crime to attend as official witnesses. This dubious privilege invariably falls to members of the local media, who report on it.

As prison reporter for The Huntsville Item, a local newspaper, Ms Lyons watched 38 of the 40 executions carried out in Texas in 2000, her first year on the job.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Texans are still solidly behind the death penalty and Huntsville is nicknamed the Death Penalty Capital of the World. It has five prisons, including the Walls Unit, an austere red-brick Victorian building that houses its death chamber.

The year 2000 witnessed a circus that surrounded the execution of Gary Graham, aka Shaka Sankofa, a teenage killer, rapist and violent robber who became an international cause celebre for those who claimed he was innocent.

Human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger and black rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were among those who witnessed the execution, Ms Jagger weeping.

Ms Lyons is convinced that they should have chosen a far more deserving case.

She also takes issue with the actress Kate Winslet who rebuked Huntsville's "pervasive sense of death" after she made the 2003 film The Life Of David Gale about one of its death chamber inmates. Winslet, she pointedly recalls, barely spent any time in the town.

Lyons' job also included interviewing Death Row inmates, many of whom she got to know well as they languished in a separate prison 40 miles from Huntsville. Cooped up in cells for 23 hours a day, the most infamous was Betty Lou Beets, the so-called Black Widow, "who buried husbands in her garden as if they were dead pets".

Ms Lyons rarely had much sympathy for the inmates — seeing them as ruthless criminals, desperately lying to save their skins. An exception was Napoleon Beazley, a 17-year-old convicted of killing the father of a federal judge in a robbery.

Lyons felt he was "fundamentally good" and believed they could have been friends in the real world. She cried all the way home after his execution, admitting: "I'd got too close."

With others, she could be astonishingly callous, recording, for example, in her diary how she resented a murderer's rambling nine-minute statement in the death chamber because she was missing happy hour at her local bar. She now feels 'embarrassed and ashamed' to read that entry.

Another time, she was deeply moved by an inmate's mother. She recalled child killer Ricky McGinn's mum, "dressed in her Sunday best and with her wrinkled hands pressed against the glass". The memory still makes her cry.

Most individuals were not remembered — partly because she often felt no emotional reaction to them and partly because Texas had "perfected" the lethal injection process and so "removed the theatre".

She explained: "It doesn't have the drama of hanging or firing squad or "Old Sparky" (the electric chair)."

Texas executions were "a clinical process; there was even a certain decorum about it, what with the chaplain placing his hand on the inmate's knee [to provide reassurance] and the warden making sure a pillow was in place on the trolley."

Inevitably, Lyons attracted attention, with the international media keen to interview a young, university-educated woman whose job it was to witness executions.

A man from Germany wrote to say he had dreamt he had been "very naughty" and she'd "had to spank him".

Meanwhile, those opposed to the death penalty targeted her with abuse. But she resented such jibes, often writing back angrily, saying: "How dare you criticise us and our justice system?"

One gripe of Lyons was that she felt strongly that women were treated too leniently. Despite having often committed horrendous crimes, in some cases on their own children, they were spared death.

In 2001, she took a job as spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state's prisons service. She still attended every execution but it was now her duty to record every detail of what happened to the condemned.

In her book, she describes the ritual on execution day. The inmate would have breakfast between 3.30am and 4.30am in his Death Row cell and at 8am be taken to a visitation area to spend four hours with family and friends. He would then be loaded into a van and driven in a heavily armed convoy to Huntsville.

Lyons rode in the convoy once, and was terrified when she was handed a gun. The convoy would arrive at around 1pm. The inmate would be brought inside the Walls Unit, strip-searched, finger-printed and put in a holding cell — containing only a metal lavatory and a bunk — next to the death chamber.

The warden, chaplain and Lyons would each pay a visit, in her case to see if he wanted to give a final statement either in the death chamber or distributed to the media beforehand.

"Mostly, they were quiet, nervous and resigned to their fate," she says. After they left, prison officers would set a table in the cell with coffee, fruit punch, iced tea and snacks. The condemned could make phone calls to anywhere in the U.S. (which they couldn't while on Death Row).

The last meal came at 4 pm, prepared at the time by an inmate who had been a rock musician before being taught to cook in prison by a classically trained chef.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Contrary to legend, if an inmate asked for a dish the prison kitchen didn't usually have, they wouldn't get it. Most inmates kept it simple and ordered a cheeseburger. Prisoners usually would then have to wait — agonisingly — until 6 pm, the deadline for any stay of execution to come from the Texas governor. If not, journalists would be led into the Walls Unit while the prisoner — unshackled — would be escorted into the tiny, pastel green death chamber by a five-man "tie down squad".

He would be asked to get on the trolley and stretch out his arms in the crucifix position so the squad could strap him down.

The 'IV [intravenous] team' — three or four anonymous volunteers from the local community with medical experience (but not doctors who would be barred by the Hippocratic Oath from performing an execution) — would then take over.

They would stick needles into the inmate connected to intravenous tubes which ran through a hole in the wall to an adjoining room from which the IV team could carry out the execution, pushing syringes containing lethal drugs by hand. Witnesses would be ushered into viewing rooms. Although it was choreographed so the families of victims and those of their killers never saw each other, Lyons found it troubling that the walls were so thin they could hear each other "far too well".

The noise invariably came from the inmate's family. She recalls: "Once, I could hear a woman sobbing and pounding the glass. Another time I could hear a woman yelling and kicking the wall.

"There were mums who pleaded, mums who prayed and mums who insisted their son was innocent. A couple of mums even fainted. No wonder some inmates told their mums not to turn up."

Having earlier instructed him to keep it to under a minute, the warden would then ask the inmate if he had any last statement to give into a microphone suspended from the ceiling just above his mouth.

Most made some reference to God and many would protest their innocence although Lyons says the prison chaplain confided that they would often have confessed their guilt to him hours earlier.

The angriest last statement she heard was from Cameron Willingham who was convicted of murdering his three baby girls in a fire. He directed such a foul-mouthed tirade at his ex-wife, watching from behind the glass, that the warden signalled for the injection to start while he was still in full flow.

Another man's last statement ended with "thanking the prison system for its hospitality and his last meal, as if he was checking out of a hotel", says Lyons. Another quipped: "Where's my stunt-double when I need him?"

Lyons says she never saw anyone pleading for his life and recalls only one man crying. "It was about trying to take it like a man," she says.

The warden used to signal for the drugs to be introduced by taking off his glasses but inmates got wise to it. So he changed the routine and pressed a button to switch on a light in the IV room. When the drugs start flowing, the condemned inmate's eyes would often suddenly shoot open.

During the period when Lyons attended executions, Texas used a three-drug method, starting with a lethal dose of a sedative, a lethal dose of a muscle relaxant that would collapse the lungs and diaphragm and a third drug that stopped the heart.

She says she came to hate the smell of the death chamber, which she compared to the cheesy crisps Cheetos, although she could never work out what caused it as the drugs were sealed.

For the next five or six silent minutes, the warden would remain by the inmate's head and the chaplain with his hand on his knee before a doctor checked for a heart-beat.

"I'd stand stiff behind the glass, stomach grumbling, that strange smell in my nostrils, watching the inmate turn purple," says Lyons. The warden would announce the time of death and pull a sheet over the inmate's head.

Lyons believes she never saw an innocent man or woman put to death although she insists there were "only a couple of occasions I looked into an inmate's eyes and thought I saw pure evil".

On the other hand, when she was moved to pity, it was often for the older inmates who'd been on Death Row for years. Compared with their police mugshots, they were old men rather than the "young, dumb kid who committed the crime".

Even if, deep within, she was more affected than she admitted, Lyons says she tried to act tough and indulge in irreverent gallows humour. That changed when she became a mother in 2005. She started to empathise with the mothers of the condemned and "suddenly executions were things I began to dread". They went from being an "abstract concept" to being "deeply personal".

When pregnant, she worried that her unborn daughter "could hear the inmates" last words, their pitiful apologies, their desperate claims of innocence, their sputtering and snoring.

She would have "weird, irrational thoughts that an inmate's evil spirit might leave his body and enter my baby's, so that I'd end up giving birth to an evil child".

Once ardently pro-capital punishment, she began to see "there were no winners" in the process. Even victims' families often found little closure as the condemned man failed to behave as they had hoped. Many complained to Lyons that the lethal injection was too quick and painless.

She increasingly questioned certain inmates' executions. While before she might shed a tear afterwards, now she was sobbing all the way home every time.

After leaving her job in 2012, Lyons was struck by tragedy herself when her second husband's 17- year-old daughter was killed by a drug-dealer.

She was upset that California, where it happened, doesn't have the death penalty. For she remains convinced the death penalty is justified in some cases.

"I have a pocket of inner darkness that sometimes consumes me and makes me want to shut out the world," she says.

"That's how I feel now, thinking about the things I saw and heard in that death chamber. I can't get the tears to stop rolling down my cheeks."