In ‘Death Row,’ Michelle Lyons Recalls 280 Executions—And a Life Marred by Trauma
Michelle Lyons’ memoir tells the story of a traumatic life spent witnessing hundreds of people being executed in Texas’ most infamous prison.
“What I remember most is the nothingness,” Michelle Lyons writes in her new book, Death Row. “I can’t remember his name, his crime or what Texas county he fell from, but the contours of his face are etched on my mind, as if he was executed yesterday.”
As first a reporter and then a public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Lyons attended every execution—more than 280—carried out at the Huntsville, Texas penitentiary over 12 years. Her book, which was released in the U.K. on May 3 by Blink Publishing, is a portrait of what it’s like to be surrounded by death in your life—to fill your days with irreverent, gallows-humor while you watch death-row inmates executed as a matter of routine.
“At first I was worried something was wrong with me, because I felt nothing,” Lyons told The Daily Beast. “I was worried that was a statement about who I was. It is such a sterile environment. It is such a clinical experience. In the state of Texas, it goes like clockwork.”
“I was so good, like journalists often are, at putting my feelings aside,” said Lyons, her voice catching in her throat. “But over time, there is a cumulative effect. After a while, you hear inmates families’ crying or see the anxiousness of the victims’ families. I ended up feeling pulled in so many directions.”
At first, she kept a journal.
“Earl Carl Heiselbetz Jr., 48, was the first person to be executed in the new millennium, and the 200th in Texas since Dec. 1982, when executions resumed,” she wrote in a January 2000 entry. “You could hear him making these uncomfortable breathing noises, the same kinds I think I would make if it were me strapped to the gurney.”
His last words were: “Love y’all—see you on the other side.”
Lyons hopes her book illustrates the complexity of the death penalty, she told The Daily Beast. When she began working for the prison system, she was staunchly pro-capital punishment, but that opinion didn’t hold for long.
“It’s not that black and white,” she said over the phone. “These are real people who are being executed.”
Over the years, Lyons saw countless inmates’ mothers plead and scream and pray and faint. She watched men die after killing children, after killing neighbors, after killing strangers. Robert Coulson, Gary Graham, William Kendrick Burns, James Edward Clayton, John Satterwhite, and Hilton Crawford all died in front of her eyes. Some men were still wearing their glasses when they stopped breathing. Some were apologetic. Some were stoic. Some were angry.
Cameron Todd Willingham—who was convicted of murdering his three daughters in a house fire—used his last breath in 2004 to lavish profanities on his ex-wife: “I hope you rot in hell, bitch. I hope you fucking rot in hell, bitch. You bitch. I hope you fucking rot, cunt. That’s it.”
David Martinez, who raped and murdered a student in Austin, said at his execution: “Only the sky and the green grass goes on forever, and today is a good day to die.”
Napoleon Beazley was 25 years old when he was executed in 2001. A few weeks before his death—and seven years after he’d murdered John Luttig—he told Lyons that death row “is like a cancer.”
“It eats away at you piece by piece, and then you get to a point where you don’t care if you live or die,” he said.
In her book, Lyons describes Beazley as “the poster child for juvenile executions,” since he was 17 years old when he committed the crime. There was considerable media coverage surrounding his controversial death.
“It was a heinous crime. His victims were in their home, where they thought they’d be safe,” Lyons wrote. But she bonded with Beazley in his time on death row—and she truly believed he was a changed person. “Not only did I get the sense that he wouldn’t have been in any more trouble, I thought he would have been a productive member of society, were he given a second chance. He could have done great things.”
In his final written statement, Beazley said, “The person that committed that act is no longer here—I am… I’m sorry that John Luttig died. And I’m sorry that it was something in me that caused all of this to happen to begin with.”
“Tonight, we tell the world that there are no second chances in the eyes of justice,” he continued. “No one wins tonight. No one gets closure. No one walks away victorious.”
After watching Beazley die, Lyons wept the whole way home.
“I’d gotten too close,” she writes in her book.
Lyons refused to cry in front of anyone else, even if she was affected. Soon, she stopped taking such meticulous personal notes in her journal—about the executions and her carefully hidden feelings. It was too hard, she said.
“If I had started exploring how the executions made me feel while I was seeing them, or gave too much thought to all the emotions that were in play, how would I have been able to go back into that room, month after month, year after year?” Lyons writes. “It was the numbness that preserved me and kept me going.”
While Death Row is a deeply sad memoir of perseverance in the face of routine tragedy, the traumatic is sometimes buried in the banal—and vice versa. In the days and hours before executions, inmates are checked by guards every 15 minutes, and their activities are documented, Lyons writes.
“It would be trivial things, like ‘inmate sleeping,’ ‘inmate reading’ or ‘inmate sitting on bunk,’” she says. “There were other things we’d leave off, because nobody wanted to know that an inmate had spent his final hours on earth furiously masturbating.”
For years, Lyons had even confused which execution was the last one she witnessed.
“It tells you how shattered I was, that the memories weren’t even going in, never mind disappearing,” she wrote.
Before the hundreds of men (and a few women) she saw executed, Lyons simply wanted to be a reporter. She grew up in Galveston, where her father worked at the Galveston County Daily News. She went to bed with a view of the beach outside her window. She spent summers wearing flip-flops and working at tacky souvenir shops.
Even on the phone—while discussing years of trauma and death—Lyons radiates an ebullient persona born of that carefree environment. She’s known by family and friends for a glowing optimism. But there’s a crisp juxtaposition between her eager voice and the book’s dark contents.
“In secret, I cry more than any of them would think. I have a pocket of inner darkness that sometimes consumes me and makes me want to shut out the world,” she admits in the book. “I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me, which is why I didn’t even tell my husband when I cried all the way home after an execution.”
Lyons began her journalism career as an obituary writer at The Bryan-College Station Eagle. She later moved to Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston, where she worked at The Huntsville Item. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has its headquarters in Huntsville, where five prisons are located within the city limits. Four others sit just minutes outside of town. Kate Winslet, who filmed The Life of David Gale in Huntsville, once called the city “one giant prison” with a “pervasive sense of death.”
Lyons was 22 years old when she saw her first execution, filling in for an absent coworker. She watched 41-year-old Javier Cruz put to death in 1998 while he repeated “I’m okay, I’m okay,” to his family. He waived his right to make a last statement. Cruz was the 15th person executed that year. Soon afterward, Lyons left the Item to work for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2001 and became the director of public information for 110 prisons across the state. She stayed there until 2012.
“I still live in Huntsville; I’m still surrounded by prisons,” Lyons told The Daily Beast this week. “But it’s a lovely community, and I have made it my home.”
After meeting ex-Texas Monthly (and current New York Times Magazine) writer Pamela Colloff, Lyons began recounting the scenes that had haunted her for years—but that she had never processed.
She remembered everything: “The conversations she had shared with particular inmates in the hours before they were strapped to the gurney; of the mothers, dressed in their Sunday best, who had turned out to attend their sons’ executions; of the victims’ families, their faces hardened with grief; of the sudden stillness that came over the prisoners soon after the lethal drugs entered their bloodstreams,” Colloff wrote, in her National Magazine Award-nominated piece “The Witness.”
Lyons thought being away from the job would make it easier, but “it’s been quite the opposite.”
“I think about it all the time,” she writes in her book. “Now that I’m gone, it’s like I’ve taken the lid off Pandora’s Box and I can’t put it back on.”
Even now, in her personal life, Lyons describes a hypervigilance common among those who’ve been exposed to prolonged trauma. It’s all tinged with a genuine, bubbly, reporterly matter-of-factness.
“I’m not afraid to go anywhere, but I’m constantly looking behind me and locking doors,” she writes. “When I arrive at a parking lot, you won’t see me digging around in my bag for my car keys; they will already be in my hand.”
In the end, she doesn’t regret her career choice, she says, citing a famous unattributed quote:
“People always ask me, ‘Why do you always take the hard road?’ And I replied, ‘Why do you assume I see more than one road?’”