Michelle Lyons was an eyewitness to almost 300 executions by lethal injection by the State of Texas.

She has seen it all, as a reporter and as the spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

On most occasions she watched from the witness area, a front-row seat to see serial killers, child murderers and rapists speak their last words on earth before a cocktail of lethal drugs surged through their veins.

Ponchai Wilkerson spat out a handcuff key with his dying breath.
Ponchai Wilkerson spat out a handcuff key with his dying breath.

She found that most death row inmates go willingly to their executions. However, some refuse to die quietly - in some cases officers were forced to gas inmates out of cells, strap their heads to the gurney and even give chase across prison grounds.


One killer even stole a key to a set of handcuffs, which he spat out with his dying breath.

"I could tell immediately when I went into the witness room if they had fought," Lyons, 43, said.

"Inmates would have five restraints on them - on each of their arms, each of their legs and their torso - but those who had fought had more restraints on their head.

"One inmate even said, 'I'm not going to walk so you'll have to carry me' - so they did."

Murderer Ponchai Wilkerson was among those who fought.

Wilkerson, who shot dead a jewellery shop worker in Houston nearly 30 years ago, tried to escape from death row on Thanksgiving night 1998 along with six other prisoners.

The group placed cushions and sheets in their beds before leaving their cells for dinner and hiding in a recreation yard.

Later that night, they used a hacksaw to cut a hole in the fence and scaled the roof. They then sprinted for freedom, but were spotted by officers who opened fire.

Wilkerson surrendered during the shooting, but escaped from his prison cell two years later and took a female officer hostage.

Fortunately, the guard was later released unharmed.

In his final defiance, Wilkerson had to be gassed out of his cell on the day of his execution.

"He fought and they did have to gas him,"Lyons said, who worked as a reporter for The Huntsville Item newspaper.

Even with his last breath, the killer proved defiant.

"His execution was so unnerving because when he was making his last statement he was murmuring something," Lyons said.

"He was moving his mouth in a strange way. He timed it just right so his final breath was the moment this key came out of his mouth and rested on his chin."

The key was to a set of handcuffs.

"It was believed he had planned to try to escape but he hadn't anticipated being restrained with two sets," said Lyon, who lives in Huntsville and has penned a book about her life as an execution witness, called Death Row: The Final Minutes.

"He had the key for one set but not the other."

Wilkerson was declared dead at 6.24pm on March 14, 2000.

Condemned inmate Gary Graham faced death by lethal injection.
Condemned inmate Gary Graham faced death by lethal injection.

While he had surrendered during the attempted death row breakout two years earlier, one of his fellow prisoners - Latino murderer Martin Gurule - had not.

Gurule, the only one of the seven-strong group to keep going, climbed over two razor-wire security fences to escape.

"The fences have these sharp razor blades," Lyons said.

"He had wrapped himself in magazines and newspapers so he wouldn't get cut up."

Although Gurule successfully made it out of the Ellis Unit's grounds with bullets flying around him, his makeshift "suit of armour" turned out to be his downfall.

A week after the escape, he was found drowned in a river.

"He was still wrapped up when he jumped in the river - he sunk like a rock," Lyons said.

Another death row inmate who fought in his final days was Gary Graham, who was 17 when he was sentenced to die for murdering a man outside a supermarket.

During his time behind bars, Graham drew support from the public and celebrities, with many claiming he was innocent of his crime. Actress Bianca Jagger and civil rights activist Rev Al Sharpton were among the witnesses at his June 2000 execution.

"He had became a media darling," Lyons said. "He had vowed he was going to fight and he did.

"When we came into the witness area he had been banging his head."

Killer Emerson Rudd, who was 18 when he shot dead a restaurant manager during a robbery, also proved difficult to get to the gurney.

Author Michelle Lyons.
Author Michelle Lyons.

Prison guards even put him in a cage to stop him from fighting. Like Wilkerson, he had to be gassed from his cell, with the spray leaving his skin "red raw".

Lyons said of the gas: "It makes it hard to breathe — officers would have masks on to protect themselves. Inmates are given warnings before the gas is used."

While she felt no sympathy for some inmates, she says she had a harder time with other executions where she felt the prisoner wouldn't reoffend if they were released.

"I felt guilty — but it's easy to feel that way because they hadn't killed anyone I loved," she said.

But in 2016, Lyons was dealt her own heartbreak when her teen stepdaughter Kristine was shot dead.

Kristine, 17, was gunned down in the car park of a California shopping centre, with her killer, Cameron Frazier, later locked up for life for her murder.

Michelle feels the death penalty would have been the appropriate punishment for him.

"I really understood how one single crime could undo so many lives," she tells us.

"My marriage to Kristine's father ended the year after, and her mum's life of course was undone. Her siblings had a very difficult time. One act of violence shattered so many lives."