For more than a decade, it was Michelle Lyons’s job to observe the final moments of death row inmates—but watching 278 executions did not come without a cost.
Hi, if you are reading this then they killed me. I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed talking to you, you seem like a really great lady. I’m sorry we didn’t meet under different circumstances. . . . Thank you for your kindness. Have a wonderful day.
—Letter from death row inmate Robert Coulson, June 25, 2002
Early one morning in April, Michelle Lyons pulled up outside her daughter’s elementary school in Huntsville, seventy miles north of Houston. Set deep in the Piney Woods, Huntsville—which is home to no fewer than five prisons—is a company town whose primary industry is confinement. Many parents who were dropping their children off at school that day worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville’s largest employer. Michelle, who sat behind the wheel of her blue Chevy sedan nursing a travel mug of coffee, had worked for TDCJ herself for more than a decade. She had been the public face of the agency, a disarmingly friendly, upbeat spokesperson for the biggest prison system in the nation. Though she had left the position two years earlier, she was still well-known around town, and several mothers waved as her car idled in the drop-off line. “Have a beautiful day,” she murmured when her nine-year-old leaned in to kiss her goodbye.
When Michelle first went to work for TDCJ, in 2001, she had begun each weekday morning by driving into town, past the picturesque courthouse square and toward the Walls Unit, the 165-year-old penitentiary that is Huntsville’s most iconic landmark. The prison, whose ramparts measure more than thirty feet high, is a colossal, foreboding structure crowned by razor wire—a two-block-long, red-brick fortress that houses the most active death chamber in the country. Michelle’s office occupied a corner of an administrative building directly across the street from the Walls, and one of the requirements of her job as a public information officer had been to attend every execution the state carried out. She had also attended executions for her previous job, as a reporter covering prisons for the hometown newspaper, the Huntsville Item. Michelle spent many evenings—hundreds, in fact—standing shoulder-to-shoulder with witnesses in a cramped room that afforded a view of the death chamber, where she watched as men, and two women, were injected with a three-drug cocktail that stopped their hearts. All told, she had seen 278 inmates put to death.
As Michelle pulled away from the school, she headed out of Huntsville, toward Interstate 45 and her new job more than an hour’s drive away, in downtown Houston. She cracked her window, grateful for the cool air on her face. Mornings, when her commute offered time to think back on everything she had seen at the Walls, were the hardest. She was flooded with memories from her time inside the Death House: of 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. She could still see some of these men—their chests expanding, their chins stiffening as they took their last breaths.
These memories intruded with such frequency that Michelle no longer tried to push them out of her mind. Instead, she had started recording voice memos, letting her thoughts unspool as she drove alone in the car. She kept one eye on the road that morning as she rummaged through her purse for her iPhone, finally fishing it out and holding the microphone up to her mouth. “I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”
As she approached Houston’s outer suburbs, the East Texas pines receded, replaced by roadside billboards hawking vasectomy reversals and personal injury lawyers and Chick-fil-A. Michelle thought back to a few months earlier, when she had called her former boss, Larry Fitzgerald, on the way to work, as she did every now and then to check in on him. The authoritative sound of his voice—Larry had been a radio news reporter back in the sixties—had always reassured her. It was Larry who had recruited her to TDCJ, and their friendship had continued after he retired and Michelle succeeded him as the agency’s director of public information. Though Larry was 38 years her senior, they had remained close because of the peculiar history they shared. Wardens, guards, and prison administrators had come and gone, but she and Larry had each been a constant presence, attending virtually every execution during the period when George W. Bush’s bid for the presidency had thrust Texas into the international spotlight.
Despite all the time the two had spent together—the workday lunches, the happy hours, the long evenings waiting to hear if the appellate courts would grant a reprieve—Michelle had never asked Larry how he felt about watching inmates die, and he had never offered his opinion. So when she had phoned him from the road the previous fall and he had casually mentioned that he was having nightmares—which he downplayed by calling them dreams—about his time inside the Walls, his words had sent a jolt through her. She could still picture the exact moment he made this admission: she had been making a turn onto the Hardy Toll Road, and the morning sun had been unbearably bright. That Larry too was struggling had unnerved her. He had always been the less serious one, the one who could shrug off the solemnity of the moment with a dry aside. Often after they exited the Death House, he would suggest they go drink margaritas.
Michelle had forgotten where she had left off with her dictation. She was thinking about Larry, wondering which executions he relived in his dreams. Her own hard moments came when she was awake. She could still picture Ricky McGinn’s mother, an elderly woman who had arrived at her son’s execution in a floral dress and pearls. Michelle would never forget watching her try to rise from her wheelchair so she could see through the large pane of glass that separated her from the death chamber. On the other side lay her son, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. McGinn was flat on his back, each limb restrained with leather straps, an IV line stuck in each arm. The old woman, her wrinkled hands pressed to the glass, had watched intently as her son’s body went slack. Michelle thought about her as she drove to work that morning. When the Houston skyline rose up in front of her, she realized her face was wet with tears.
This was my first execution and I was completely fine with it, although many, many people asked me about if I really was okay. I really was. In fact, I felt bad, like, “Am I supposed to be upset about this? Do people think I’m bad or evil or something because I’m not?”
—Michelle’s journal, October 1, 1998
Before the responsibilityof watching an inmate die fell to a handful of state employees, executions in Texas were conspicuously public affairs. Few events in the nineteenth and early twentieth century could rival the spectacle of a hanging on the courthouse square, and Texans often marked years in relation to not just major fires and floods but also these sensational dispensations of justice. That changed in 1923, after an epidemic of lynchings began to erode the distinction between legal hangings—conducted only after a defendant was found guilty, by a jury, of a capital crime—and vigilantism, which prompted the Legislature to outlaw all public executions. From then on, defendants sentenced to death were sent to Huntsville, away from the emotionally charged settings of their crimes. Executions took place in the south wing of the Walls and were attended by a small group of prison employees and reporters. Electrocution, which was considered more state-of-the-art than the gallows, was adopted as the official means of execution.
For the next forty years, witnesses were subjected to a gruesome sight. Though the electric chair did its work more efficiently than the noose, it still proved to be a crude way to kill someone. In his memoir, Have a Seat, Please, the late Huntsville Item editor Don Reid described in unsettling detail the 1938 electrocution of “a tall, powerfully built Negro” named Albert Lee Hemphill, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a Dallas man. Reid recounted watching as Hemphill was led into the death chamber, where, just feet from the assembled witnesses, he “sank to his knees and sang ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ in a deep, rich, and unfaltering baritone.” (Until 1989, nothing but a metal rail divided onlookers from the person slated to die.) When the 23-year-old finished, he was strapped to the chair, where a guard laid a Bible in his lap. Then the signal was given. “The room exploded with the mounting whine of the generators,” Reid wrote. “Hemphill’s body slammed forward against the restraining leather straps, and the Bible came sliding down his lap to the floor. I shrank back as the second jolt brought an odd red glow to Hemphill’s skin and steam drifted from his head and chest. A dreadful odor of burning flesh enveloped us all.”
Three hundred and sixty-one men were put to death by electrocution before Old Sparky was decommissioned, in 1977. The Legislature decided to retire the sturdy, high-backed, solid oak chair after a Dallas TV reporter named Tony Garrett filed a lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union seeking permission to film executions and broadcast them to the public. When a federal judge in Dallas ruled in January 1977 that executions could indeed be televised, Texas lawmakers quickly moved to approve a new method that would be less offensive than electrocution. Their deliberations came on the heels of a four-year moratorium on the death penalty; the U.S. Supreme Court had only just reinstated capital punishment the previous July after a long legal battle over whether or not it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Texas lawmakers settled on lethal injection, a method developed by the Oklahoma state medical examiner that was yet untested but promised a “gentle, humane” death, as one prison chaplain told a reporter, “just like . . . laying down and going to sleep.” James Estelle, the director of the Texas Department of Corrections (as TDCJ was then known), heralded it as “a more civilized way of carrying out our responsibilities.”
Because of appeals and legal challenges, this new procedure would not be put into practice until five years later, when a Fort Worth man named Charlie Brooks became the first person in the United States to be executed using lethal injection. (A Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling had by this time barred executions from being televised.) Just before midnight on December 6, 1982, witnesses were led into the Death House, a small structure inside the Walls prison complex where Old Sparky had been housed since the fifties. There, they saw Brooks strapped to a gurney, “stiff with fright,” as Dick Reavis wrote for this magazine (“Charlie Brooks’ Last Words,” February 1983). An IV line led from Brooks’s arm through a small opening in the wall to an adjacent room, where the executioner was concealed behind a one-way mirror. Sentenced to death for the murder of a Fort Worth mechanic, Brooks met a far less violent end than his victim, who had been shoved into the trunk of a car, bound with coat hanger wire, gagged with tape, and shot in the head. When the lethal drugs began flowing, “a look of absolute, unmitigated terror took over his face,” wrote Reavis. “His agony of anticipation [lasted . . .] perhaps a minute, perhaps two minutes, before he felt death creeping in.” Brooks gasped and wheezed, then fell silent. At 12:16 a.m., seven minutes after the injection had begun, he was pronounced dead.
In the years that followed, prison officials from more than a dozen other states visited Huntsville after their legislatures adopted lethal injection as the method of execution. They toured the Walls, learning the precise protocol that TDCJ had developed for putting inmates to death. The process began with the warden asking the condemned to walk from his holding cell, where he had eaten his last meal, to the death chamber, fifteen feet away. There, five guards who constituted the “tie-down team” quickly strapped him to a gurney, buckling thick leather belts across his arms, legs, and torso, and a two-person “drug team” inserted IVs into his arms. Only three people remained in the chamber after that: the inmate, who gave a final statement; the prison chaplain, who had spent the day with the condemned and now stood at his side; and the warden, who motioned to the executioner when it was time to begin. Then the three-drug cocktail was injected into the IV lines. First came sodium thiopental, an anesthetic; followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant; and finally potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest. For the witnesses who looked on, the experience was not unlike watching someone drift off to sleep.
By the time Michelle arrived in Huntsville, in the late nineties, executions had become routine, even banal, affairs, many of which merited only a brief mention in the local news. Because of the protracted appeals process for death row inmates, their sentences were often not carried out until more than a decade after their crimes, when many of them were more temperate, acquiescent versions of the men they had once been. Michelle was struck by the decorum inside the Walls, where men who had committed acts of extraordinary violence freely walked to the death chamber without any hesitation or need for force. She noted in particular the small courtesies that the prison staff extended to the condemned, as when the warden ensured that a pillow be placed at the head of the gurney so the inmate would be more comfortable, or when the chaplain placed his hand on the right leg of the restrained prisoner, just below the knee, to reassure him during his final moments. Later, as Michelle went about her job as TDCJ’s spokesperson, the incongruous civility of these gestures would never be far from her mind.
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. . . . He was incredibly nervous before the execution. . . . 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. Last words: “Love y’all—see you on the other side.” He was still wearing his glasses.
—Michelle’s journal, January 12, 2000
For as far back as Michelle could remember, she had wanted to be a reporter. As a kid, she had loved how her father’s suits always smelled like ink when he returned home from the Galveston County Daily News, where he was a reporter before switching over to the advertising department once he had a family to support. On her annual pilgrimages to her father’s office to sell Girl Scout cookies, Michelle had marveled at the place, gaping at the busy newsroom where he had once worked the police beat; the enormous, clattering printing presses; the darkroom where photographs slowly materialized in the otherworldly red light.
A proud BOI—Galveston shorthand for someone “Born on the Island”—Michelle was, from an early age, relentlessly social and curious about the world. She was active in the Methodist church, where her mother taught Sunday school, and in high school, she was a member of both the drill team and the student council. When her family moved to southern Illinois for her junior and senior years, she became the editor of her high school newspaper. (Eager to make an impression, she also served as class treasurer and president of the foreign language club and was voted “Best Dressed.”) On nights and weekends, she worked as a photographer at the hometown paper, the Benton Evening News, where her father was the publisher. There were ribbon cuttings and high school football games to shoot, but it was the local tragedies she documented—house fires, car wrecks, and the like—that would help inure her to the later shock of witnessing executions. In 1994 she went to Texas A&M to earn a degree in journalism, but she spent most of her time at the Bryan–College Station Eagle, where she managed to hold down a job as a full-time reporter. More often than not, she missed her sorority’s chapter meetings because she was busy covering the police beat.
Though Huntsville was less than an hour’s drive from College Station, Michelle had glimpsed the town only once, in the movies, when she had watched John Travolta and Debra Winger cozy up to each other at the prison rodeo in Urban Cowboy. She visited for the first time in 1996, when she was a junior at A&M, after her father—keen to leave the Midwest behind—accepted an offer to be the Huntsville Item’s publisher. She followed her parents to Huntsville two years later and went to work at the Item, where she initially covered city council meetings and local stories. As one of only three news reporters at the paper, she was easily recognizable. Locals stopped by the Item’s office, a few blocks from the courthouse, to give her tips and air their grievances, and more than one resident routinely brought by a marked-up copy of the paper with each typo circled in red ink. Michelle smiled at these informalities. For a town of 35,000 people, Huntsville still felt comfortably small.
Everywhere Michelle went, there were reminders of the town’s primary industry. Trustees in their telltale white jumpsuits mowed grass and picked up trash by the side of the road; gray-uniformed guards gassed up their trucks, stood in line at the bank, and ate the blue plate special at the Café Texan; TDCJ buses idled at red lights, their shackled passengers gawking at the world just beyond their reach; men with buzz cuts, newly released from prison, dragged on cigarettes before heading to the bus depot to catch the next Greyhound out of town. As an outsider looking in, Michelle was fascinated. When the reporter who had been covering prisons for the Item left in late 1999, Michelle decided to take her place. Executions were by no means the focus of the job; she would cover TDCJ’s budget woes and staffing shortages as well as more-enthralling subjects, like the occasional prison escape and the ensuing manhunt. But the prospect of watching inmates die did not scare her off. “I think covering executions is incredibly important work,” Michelle told me. “It can be difficult work too. But everything that is said and done in that chamber, and in the witness rooms, needs to be public record.” She started her new beat on January 3, 2000.
Michelle already had a sense of what to expect. Fifteen months earlier, while covering for an absent colleague, she had entered the Death House for the first time to witness the execution of a convicted murderer named Javier Cruz. Years later, she would remember very little about it—only that she had dressed more formally than usual and that she had been unsure, at the outset, how she would feel when it was all over. The facts of Cruz’s case did not engender much sympathy: he had murdered two San Antonio men, one of whom he had gagged and bound, beaten with a hammer, and then strangled with the belt of a bathrobe. Michelle had found that watching Cruz slip into unconsciousness did not evoke any powerful emotions; she had scribbled in her yellow legal pad, typed up her story, and gone home. Covering executions was certainly no worse, she decided, than being a war correspondent or any other journalist who sees suffering up close; in fact, the cold efficiency of lethal injection made hers the easier job. When her father called her into his office the next day to check on her, she told him she was fine. As she saw it, her duty as a journalist was to be dispassionate.
In the first year that Michelle served as the Item’s prison reporter, Texas executed forty inmates—the most people put to death in a single year, by one state, in American history. Governor Bush also happened to be making a run for the White House. This confluence of events caused hundreds of journalists to descend on Huntsville in the months leading up to the 2000 presidential election, mostly to issue withering assessments. On the night that Billy George Hughes, a man who had fatally shot a state trooper, was put to death, a TV show hosted by filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore arranged for a pom-pom-waving cheerleading squad to stand outside the Walls and chant, “Texas, Texas, you’re so great, you kill more than any state!” beside an illuminated execution scoreboard that read “George 117, Jeb 2.” Rolling Stone published a blistering takedown of Huntsville in a piece called “Five Executions and a Barbecue.” The media glare was relentless, transforming one execution that June—of an obscure Houston street criminal named Gary Graham, whose murder conviction had turned on the word of a single eyewitness—into an international cause célèbre. Riot police armed with tear gas stood outside the Walls on the night of his death while hooded Klansmen and rifle-toting members of the New Black Panther Party played to the cameras. At Graham’s invitation, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger served as witnesses.
During this time, Michelle kept a journal in which she recorded her own personal observations of the executions she witnessed, which had no place in the straightforward accounts she wrote for the Item. Rarely did she mention the media spectacle outside. Instead she cataloged the disquieting details that she noticed as she watched a succession of inmates be put to death. There was Betty Lou Beets, the second woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War, who had shot not one but two of her husbands and buried them in her yard. (“I couldn’t help but notice her tiny little feet,” Michelle wrote. “She looked like somebody’s grandma—she was somebody’s grandma.”) There was Ponchai Wilkerson, who had once nearly managed to break out of death row, who stunned onlookers when he spit out a handcuff key as he lay on the gurney. (“I felt sick,” Michelle wrote the next day. “For a few seconds I had the crazy thought, ‘He’s going to get off that table and kill us.’ ”) And there was Robert Earl Carter, who had murdered six people, including his four-year-old son, and falsely implicated his friend Anthony Graves in the crime. (“His last words were, ‘It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it,’ ” Michelle wrote.) Carter’s admission on the gurney would later help exonerate his co-defendant, who was, at the time, awaiting his own execution date.
Throughout her journal, she made mention of the anguish felt by both the inmates’ and victims’ families, who stood in witness rooms adjacent to each other, looking into the death chamber. (TDCJ officials’ careful choreography ensured that the two groups never crossed paths.) Which side Michelle watched from often depended on how many of the five media slots were filled and how many other witnesses were present. When she stood with the sister of a Waco man named John Albert Burks, who had shot and killed a tortilla chip factory owner during an armed robbery, she saw the scene through her eyes. “As he was gasping his last breath,” she wrote, “[his sister] went pretty hysterical, screaming and moaning and sobbing uncontrollably. She was flailing around and it caused her to thump her head up against the glass and the wall. She started screaming, ‘John! John!,’ like she was imploring him to wake up. I tried to imagine what it would be like to watch my brother be executed and for some reason, I understood why of all those witnessing she would be the one who was most hysterical.”
But more often, she chronicled the view from the other side, as she did one evening when she stood with the family of a slain Abilene schoolteacher named Lori Barrett. Thirteen years earlier, a neighbor of Barrett’s, James Edward Clayton, had broken into her house, kidnapped her, shot her, and dumped her body by the side of a country road. Michelle wrote that while Clayton lay on the gurney, he “looked and smiled at his own family, but never acknowledged that we were there.”
She continued, “Following the execution, Lori Barrett’s brother, David Barrett, who was a witness, spoke at a short press conference. He said that he did not forgive Clayton for what he did, and that he agreed with the death penalty. . . . ‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s not painful enough,’ he said. When asked how he remembered his sister, he began to cry and walked away. Lori’s stepfather, Joe Insall, who witnessed, stepped forward and said, ‘I think he lived too long and died too easy.’ We all thought the press conference was over but all of a sudden, Lori’s mom, Myrna Insall, who did not witness, came forward. She was very emotional, sobbing, and she blurted out, ‘She was a wonderful person and this shouldn’t have happened to her.’ Then the family walked away.”
Throughout Michelle’s journal, she insisted that she was not troubled by what she saw. “We’re not letting it get to us or disturb us,” she wrote of herself and the Associated Press’s Mike Graczyk, who was also present for nearly every execution. “We’re just doing our job.” She was incensed by those members of the media—all of them women, she lamented—who seemed to feel a perverse sense of sympathy for the convicted murderers on the gurney. (She was particularly appalled by one small-town newspaper reporter who pressed her palm against the glass of the witness room to say goodbye to an inmate she had interviewed.) After a Houston TV correspondent nearly hyperventilated and a Tyler newspaper reporter visibly trembled during the execution of one East Texas man, Michelle vented in the pages of her journal. “Here’s the deal: If you’re going to do this job, you better be at least a little tough,” she wrote. “Obviously, I’m not a mean or cold person. . . . It’s just that this is my job—our job as reporters—and therefore, that kind of thing is inappropriate. If you want to go cry in your car or something, do it. Just, for the love of God, don’t show it to everyone!”
In March 2001, for reasons she no longer remembers, Michelle abruptly stopped writing in her journal. By then, she had seen 42 inmates strapped to the gurney. She had also been interviewed numerous times on national television because of the media’s ongoing interest in Bush, who had recently taken up residence in the White House. Larry Fitzgerald, then the second-in-charge of TDCJ’s public information office, was impressed by the 25-year-old’s poise in front of the cameras, and when a spokesperson position came open in the fall of 2001, he reached out to her.
“Working at a small daily newspaper, writing three and four stories a day, had really worn me out,” Michelle told me. “The idea that I would still get to do all the exciting media stuff—deal with breaking news, go out to the different prison units, meet reporters from all over the world—and not have a daily deadline was really appealing. I knew I would have to attend executions and didn’t think that would be a problem.” That November, she cleaned out her desk at the Item and went to work seven blocks away, in the squat office building across the street from the Walls.
[John] Satterwhite had a big cross tattoo on his right forearm. He began slowly opening and closing his eyes and then took a number of breaths before finally letting out one last gasp. I got the impression he was trying to fight it and I was reminded of a conversation I once had with [prison chaplain Jim Brazzil, who] tells the inmates to look at it like they are in the ocean and they are either going to fight the tide or go with the current. It’s easier to go with it, he tells them.
—Michelle’s journal, August 16, 2000
One of the first places Larry took Michelle when she became a spokesperson for TDCJ was to death row itself. For decades, its male inhabitants had been confined to the Ellis Unit, thirteen miles north of the Walls, but in 1998 seven death row inmates staged an audacious escape, in which a Corpus Christi killer named Martin Gurule made it past the prison’s perimeter before drowning in a nearby creek. The following year, all death row inmates—some 450 men—were moved to the more modern and secure Polunsky Unit, 43 miles east of Huntsville. (The 8 women who were then on death row remained at the Mountain View Unit, in Gatesville.) Michelle had visited the new facility once before the transfer, when the cells lacked any occupants, but it was not until she returned with Larry that she fully grasped the crushing isolation of the place. As she and Larry were escorted down the wing’s austere white corridors, men in six-by-ten-foot cells stared back at them through narrow slits of glass. Each was held in solitary confinement, sealed off by concrete walls. Many of them knew Larry from his work coordinating interviews between them and the media, and they brightened when they saw him, calling out from behind their steel doors, “Hey, Mr. Fitzgerald!”
At 64, Larry was a larger-than-life personality, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking public relations man with a flair for the dramatic. (After the Ellis prison break, when Gurule’s body was found, Larry had ripped the fugitive’s “Wanted” poster to pieces in front of the assembled TV cameras and declared, “Gurule is no more!”) The Austin native had been a flack since the late seventies, when he left radio news broadcasting behind to work for the State Bar of Texas; he joined TDCJ in 1995. In his hand-tooled boots, fashioned for him by an inmate who worked in the Walls craft shop, he regaled visiting reporters with prison lore. He liked to tell the story of Lawrence Brewer, convicted in the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, and how Brewer had balked when he learned that he would have to receive some vaccinations after arriving on death row. (“I was standing there in the infirmary when Brewer exclaimed, ‘I hate needles!’ ” Larry would say. “And one of the officers replied, ‘Well, partner, you’ve come to the wrong place.’ ”) Despite his good-ol’-boy bravado, Larry had sympathy for the men who awaited their death. He was known for bending the rules on execution day, when he would bring a pack of cigarettes to whoever was waiting inside the Death House for his appointed hour. Every now and then, if the prisoner was someone he had grown to like, Larry would pull up a chair outside his cell and keep him company.
The job that he and Michelle were tasked with required an encyclopedic knowledge of the prison system, which Larry believed was best learned by going into the penitentiaries themselves. At the Byrd Unit, Larry—who enjoyed any opportunity for black humor—wryly led Michelle past dozens of newly shorn arrivals who had been divested of not just their hair but all their clothes. He brought her to the administrative segregation wing of the Estelle Unit, where he showed her TDCJ’s most uncooperative and violent offenders, among them an inmate who was busy smearing feces around his cell. Back in the office, Larry taught her the day-to-day duties of representing the agency, which ranged from fielding inquiries from the public to mollifying state officials if TDCJ became the subject of negative press coverage. Any number of unexpected events might force TDCJ, and by extension Larry and Michelle, into the limelight, whether it was something as mundane as a court ruling or as attention-grabbing as a riot or a hostage standoff. (One media flare-up concerned the fact that death row inmate Angel Maturino Resendiz, the infamous Railroad Killer, had, through an intermediary, been auctioning off his fingernail clippings on eBay.) “When the phone rang, it was like Russian roulette,” said Larry, who became the public information director shortly after hiring Michelle. “You never knew what you were going to get.”
On days when an execution was scheduled to take place, Michelle was responsible for putting together press materials for the media, including a description of the condemned’s crime, his last meal request, and a meticulous report, which was culled from guards’ logs, of his final 36 hours (“12:32 a.m.: Inmate sleeping. 4:30 a.m.: Inmate drinking milk. 8:55 a.m.: Inmate escorted to visitation”). During the execution itself, Michelle would carefully copy down each word of the inmate’s final statement on a yellow legal pad. Afterward, she would provide the media with a record of the execution, which detailed the exact moment when the lethal drugs began flowing and the official time of death. If European journalists were on hand, she would try to remain patient as they grilled her about the legality of “state-sanctioned murder.” Almost universally, foreign reporters viewed her professional detachment with a mix of incredulity and disgust. So, too, did the protesters who gathered outside. Though their numbers had fallen precipitously after the presidential election, the handful who still appeared were no less shrill. Whenever she and Larry filed into the Walls with other prison officials before an execution, they cried, “Murderers!”
Every Wednesday, Michelle drove down a winding, two-lane country road to Polunsky, where over months and then years, she came to know some of the men who were scheduled to die. Reporters were permitted to interview death row inmates in the prison’s visitation room on Wednesdays, and it was up to Michelle to supervise. It was there that she overheard bits and pieces of their life stories. The inmates would often strike up conversations with her afterward, as they waited to be taken back to their cells. She tried to keep these exchanges short and breezy, but she eventually became well acquainted with the inmates who had high-profile cases and sat for interviews again and again. “I came to believe that there were two kinds of people on death row,” Michelle told me. “You had guys who were true sociopaths. A lot of them fell into that category. And then you had guys who’d gotten themselves into a bad situation—running with a rough crowd, abusing alcohol, doing drugs. Maybe they robbed a store to get money for drugs and something went wrong and they shot the clerk. They’d had a choice to make, and they’d made the wrong one, but they hadn’t set out with the intention of killing someone.”
One inmate who Michelle believed fell in the latter group was Napoleon Beazley, a once promising high school athlete from the East Texas town of Grapeland who had shot and killed a Tyler oilman during a botched 1994 carjacking. His case had garnered tremendous media attention because he was seventeen at the time of the crime and because his personal narrative did not square with the notion that he should be counted among the worst of the worst. The son of Grapeland’s first black city councilman, Beazley was the president of his senior class and had no prior arrests. His death sentence was opposed by the Smith County judge who had presided over his trial, the district attorney in his native Houston County, and seven members of the notoriously unmerciful Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Michelle had interviewed him as a reporter at the Item, and she had been struck by his willingness to own up to his crime, which set him apart from most of the men around him. He was a regular presence on Wednesdays at Polunsky because of the intense media interest in his case, and he and Michelle, who was only a year older than him, soon developed an easy rapport. One afternoon he asked her if it was true that she witnessed executions. “You watch that?” Beaz-ley asked her in disbelief. “That’s sick.”
By the time his own date came up, on May 28, 2002, Michelle had observed 69 executions with the same cool objectivity, but that day, she struggled not to lose hold of her emotions. “I felt very conflicted, because he was one of the few inmates who I think could have redeemed himself if he had been given the chance,” she told me. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his final appeal that afternoon, she and Larry went to the holding cell inside the Death House, where Beazley would remain until he was summoned to the death chamber at six o’clock. Michelle noted that he looked as if he had not slept in a long time. He was shorter than she remembered, and he seemed diminished, his usual composure undone by apprehension and fear. Larry asked whether he planned to make a final statement, and Beazley said he wished to do so in writing. When Larry remarked that he appeared calm, the 25-year-old replied in a strained voice, “Look again.” Before turning to go, Larry broke protocol to reach through the bars of the cell to shake his hand. Michelle’s eyes watered as she nodded goodbye. Hours later, having dutifully taken notes as Beazley exhaled for the last time, she stood outside the Walls and announced to a large crowd of reporters, “He was pronounced dead at 6:17 p.m.”
Michelle did not speak to Larry about the cascade of emotions she felt in the wake of Beazley’s execution, though she sensed that he too was deeply affected. Had she been less concerned about putting up a tough front, she could have sought the counsel of Pastor Jim Brazzil. An affable, apple-cheeked prison chaplain with a benevolent smile, Brazzil was employed by TDCJ to minister to inmates in their final hours. He had perhaps the most difficult job of all; during his six-year tenure, it was he who stood in the death chamber with the warden, one hand resting on the condemned’s leg, and it was he who closed prisoners’ eyes once they lost all sign of life. Brazzil—whom Larry affectionately referred to as “Sinister Minister,” or “Sinister” for short—often joined Larry and Michelle when they repaired to a local Mexican restaurant to drink afterward. Sipping sweet tea, Brazzil would smile at Larry’s unrelenting gallows humor, understanding that he was in pain. “I knew from speaking privately with Larry that he was struggling,” Brazzil told me. “When he went out and talked to the media, he had to represent the agency, but personally, he was torn about whether the death penalty was right or wrong.” Though Larry never betrayed any uncertainty in front of Michelle, he sometimes called Brazzil at home to unburden himself. “I’d let him talk, and we’d laugh, and we’d cry, and we’d process it together,” Brazzil said.
Michelle trusted Brazzil, but she also believed she should approach her job with the same neutrality she had as a reporter, and as one of the few women in a high-ranking position inside TDCJ, she did not want to be perceived as weak. Still, she found herself moved by certain cases, like that of Rodolfo Hernandez, who had been on death row for seventeen years by the time his execution date arrived, in 2002. As a result of diabetes, his left leg had been amputated below the knee. His request for an artificial leg—so he could “walk like a man” to his own execution—was denied after a staph infection made the prosthesis inadvisable, and he was rolled to the gurney in a wheelchair instead. When Michelle visited him beforehand, he anxiously jiggled the stump of his leg up and down, as if the entire limb were still there. “At one time, he was this powerful hitman and now he is an old man waiting for his death,” Michelle reflected less than an hour before his execution, as she jotted notes in her office. “I don’t debate whether there should be a death penalty because if someone killed one of my loved ones, I would want them to die. But I still feel sympathy for this man, who nervously kicked a leg he doesn’t even have anymore.”
Hernandez was not the only death row inmate for whom she felt sudden, inexplicable compassion. Another was Hilton Crawford, who came up for execution in the summer of 2003. A former Beaumont policeman, Crawford had committed a singularly horrific crime: in 1995 he had abducted and killed a twelve-year-old boy in a failed attempt to extort half a million dollars from his parents, who considered Crawford to be a close friend. Eight years later, when he was transferred to the Walls for his execution, he was a devoted Christian and a balding, stoop-shouldered 64-year-old who was known on death row as simply “Old Man.” When Michelle learned that his last meal request—catfish—had been denied because the kitchen had none on hand, she went out and purchased some catfish filets for the prison cooks to prepare. “His crime was so horrendous,” she told me. “But this was the last thing he wanted, and I felt compelled to do it. It’s very hard to explain.”
Later, when she caught sight of the victim’s mother at Crawford’s execution, she felt a twinge of panic. What if he acknowledged her gesture from the gurney? “May God pass me over to the kingdom’s shore softly and gently,” Crawford said after he asked the victim’s family for forgiveness. He nodded as the lethal injection began flowing and then gasped before falling quiet. As Michelle looked on, contemplating how easily she had shown kindness to a man who had murdered a child, she was filled with shame.
You can’t acknowledge any conflicts within yourself and continue to walk into the [witness room]. No matter what, I had a job to do and I was not willing to let anything interfere with that. 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.
—Michelle’s voice memo, April 14, 2014
Before Michelle ever stepped foot in the IV room, she had seen only the carefully arranged tableaux presented to witnesses, in which the inmate lay already restrained on the gurney. But in an effort to accurately describe the process to reporters, on a few occasions she decided to stand with the executioner behind the one-way mirror, where she could witness everything that led up to the scene in the death chamber. From there, she heard the warden walk to the holding cell, where he would say, simply, “It’s time.” She heard the inmate, flanked by the five members of the tie-down team, make his way down the hall, with no handcuffs or leg irons to encumber him. And finally she saw him enter the chamber, where he would slide onto the gurney and lie back, stretching out his arms so the tie-down team could do its work. Though Michelle could count on one hand the number of times an inmate had resisted, she had to believe that, were she in the same situation, she would fight like an animal. That these men surrendered so easily haunted her.
With each passing year, the act of witnessing executions weighed on Michelle more and more heavily. Larry retired in 2003, and she felt his absence, wishing for the much-needed levity he had always brought to their work. She got married that same year and in 2005 gave birth to her daughter. “I started thinking about it all in very personal terms after I had a child, and that was my downfall,” Michelle told me. “I had trouble maintaining a sense of neutrality, because I began to empathize with everyone. If I saw the mother of an inmate in the witness room, I would think, ‘I can’t imagine if I were standing here, completely helpless, watching my child die in front of me, knowing I couldn’t do anything to save him.’ And then I would see the mother of the crime victim at the press conference afterward, talking about how her child had suffered in some horrendous way at the hands of whoever had just been executed, and I would think, ‘If I were her, I would’ve wanted him put to death too.’ ” Those around her noticed that she had grown more subdued, and a nurse once pointedly asked her during a routine doctor’s appointment if her job was taking a toll. “One of the hardest things for me to see was how often the victim’s family was let down by the experience, by how quick and easy it was,” Michelle said. “They didn’t walk away feeling like they had in any way been made whole.”
Her empathy began to extend to more than a few of the inmates at Polunsky. On her visits to the Death House, when she conferred with each prisoner about his final statement, she saw all pretense fall away; the fearless, don’t-give-a-damn swagger that many of them had cultivated behind bars quickly waned as they waited for the warden to call for them. She often thought back to the 2002 execution of William Kendrick Burns, a Texarkana man who had shot and killed an eighteen-year-old boy over a grudge. Burns had taken to heart some advice from Brazzil; to spare him from additional discomfort, the chaplain had suggested that once the lethal injection began flowing he not hold his breath but inhale. Yet the inmate’s terror in the death chamber was evident. “Burns got anxious that he was doing something wrong, and he kept looking up at Brazzil from the gurney,” Michelle told me. “He was saying, ‘Will you tell me when to breathe? Just tell me when,’ like a child learning how to go underwater for the first time.”
Though she had grown to dread the days inside the Walls, she never considered leaving TDCJ. Just as Larry, despite his unspoken doubts, had remained a company man, Michelle felt fiercely loyal to an institution she still found fascinating. In 2006, when she was thirty, she was promoted to the top job, becoming the first woman to helm the agency’s public information office as well as the youngest member of TDCJ’s senior staff. There were practical reasons to stay—her pay was generous by small-town standards—but in truth, she loved being a public information officer. Rarely was there upbeat news for her to peddle, but she managed to get more than a few feel-good stories into the paper; before Christmas one year, she took a contingent of reporters to see a prison work program that had inmates making children’s toys. She did not discourage the media from reporting tough stories either, once donning a knife-proof “thrust vest” so she could venture into a maximum-security prison with an Austin American-Statesman reporter who wanted to write about the agency’s controversial practice of placing gang members in solitary confinement. In 2009 the Houston Press named her the year’s “Best Flack,” noting that while “some flacks live to circle the wagons and block the free flow of public information,” Michelle worked to “help reporters get to the truth and heart of a story.”
Nevertheless, TDCJ itself was changing. Under the leadership of a new executive director, Brad Livingston, who was appointed in 2005, the agency had grown more skittish about media attention, and Michelle’s attempts to grant access to journalists or be proactive about press coverage were increasingly discouraged. In 2011 TDCJ brass questioned whether the weekly media days at Polunsky were really necessary. Michelle chafed under these strictures, and in 2012—though she had never had a single disciplinary infraction in more than ten years of service and consistently received glowing reviews—she was demoted over accusations that she kept inaccurate time sheets. She felt blindsided. “Had this been any other office, and had I actually done something wrong, I would have been given a warning and an opportunity to improve,” she told me. “But no one ever sat me down and said, ‘We think you’re doing your time sheets incorrectly. You need to fix this.’ They just wanted me out.” (TDCJ disputes this. “Her characterization is inaccurate,” spokesman Robert Hurst wrote to me. “She was counseled and disciplined consistent with TDCJ policy.”) After her demotion, she was abruptly transferred to another division and relegated to a cubicle in the windowless metal Classifications and Records Building north of town.
Her fall from favor came so fast that when she attended the March 7, 2012, execution of Keith Thurmond, an East Texas man who had shot his estranged wife and her boyfriend to death, she did not realize it would be her last. In the time she had worked for TDCJ, she had missed only three executions: one when she got married, one when she went on maternity leave, and one when she was managing the media during a prison escape. That May, after being told she would be terminated, Michelle resigned instead. Consumed with grief and rage over her ouster, she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the agency. (The suit was dismissed last year after a federal district judge determined that her case met only three of the four legal requirements that are needed to establish gender discrimination. It is currently on appeal before the Fifth Circuit.) “I still miss my job, or what my job used to be,” she told me. “I don’t miss having to attend executions and all the emotions that went with that. But I miss the people I worked with every day: the officers, the wardens, the reporters.”
These days, when Michelle learns from reading a headline or hearing a snippet on the local news that Texas has put another man to death, she is both relieved and disconcerted to gather such information secondhand. The current debate swirling around lethal injection—European manufacturers of the drugs have refused in recent years to export them to the U.S. for that purpose, prompting states to concoct new formulas with drugs obtained from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies—has meant that she and Larry are in constant contact, frequently emailing and texting each other. This year, three states have seen botched executions as a result of new drug formulas, most recently Arizona, where convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood took nearly two hours to die this past July as he “gulped like a fish on land,” according to one reporter who was present. Meanwhile, TDCJ has restricted the number of journalists allowed to witness executions, a fact that has left both Michelle and Larry dismayed. “Without media at these executions, who would have known what happened?” Larry told me. “Would prison officials have been forthcoming if there had not been reporters there?”
Now comfortably retired in Austin, Larry has made an abrupt about-face since the days when he trumpeted TDCJ’s law-and-order message; he serves as an expert witness in capital cases, in which he testifies for the defense. During the punishment phase, when jurors must decide whether to sentence the defendant to life without parole or death, Larry takes the stand to speak about the harsh conditions behind bars, suggesting that life without parole is a severe enough punishment even for men who have committed monstrous crimes. His efforts have helped spare a few men from death row—and earned him the scorn of some former colleagues, including a warden Larry was friends with, who has openly called him a traitor. “I don’t argue that these guys are innocent,” Larry said. “But some of the folks I worked with in Huntsville can’t get past the idea that I testify for the defense.”
None of his critics, though, have seen as many executions as he has—219, to be exact, whose particulars continue to revisit him in his sleep. He is circumspect in what he says about this unwelcome legacy, but he told me that he frequently dreams of Karla Faye Tucker, the notorious pickax murderer turned born-again Christian, whom he got to know well before she was executed, in 1998. “I had no reason to disbelieve the sincerity of her conversion,” he told me. “She seemed like a truly changed person. I would not have had a problem with her moving next door to me, that’s how close I got to Karla Faye.” He also often dreams of Gary Graham, the Houston man whose death provoked such a media circus back in 2000. He was one of the few inmates who refused to walk to the death chamber and had to be forcibly extracted from his cell. “I don’t remember him saying a word,” Larry said. “Five or six officers went in to get him, and he fought like crazy. I just remember hearing grunts, breathing, the sounds of a struggle.” What troubles him the most is not those nights in the Walls that he can still recall in vivid detail. “What bothers me is that I can’t remember them all,” he said. “There are names I have forgotten.”
Michelle has every reason to look forward now. Last year, she landed a public relations job at a prominent, privately held company in Houston. Her home life is happy; after her first marriage ended in divorce, she remarried in 2011, to a fellow Galveston native, and her daughter, a voluble, bespectacled fourth grader, is flourishing in school. But every weekday morning, her thoughts continue to drift back to the Walls. “I honestly don’t think therapy would help me,” she said when I asked if she had sought professional help. “There are only a few people who truly understand what I’m going through—people like Larry and Brazzil, who have seen the same things I have.” (Brazzil, now retired, pastors a Baptist church in the East Texas town of Weldon.) Of greater concern to her is how she will tell her daughter, when she is old enough to understand, that she witnessed 278 executions. “I don’t want her to think badly of me for having been there,” Michelle told me. “Not because I was doing something wrong. It’s just that when you look at that number, it’s a lot of death. I hate that someday she’ll have to know that about me.”
During one of her recent meditative morning drives, she was reminded of a poem by Dorothy Parker, a work she had read years earlier but whose words she could not entirely remember. She looked it up when she returned home that night, nodding in recognition as she read some of its lines:
When I was young and bold and strong,
Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
My plume on high, my flag unfurled,
I rode away to right the world.
‘Come out, you dogs, and fight!’ said I,
And wept there was but once to die.
But I am old; and good and bad
Are woven in a crazy plaid.
The poem resonated with her deeply. “It’s called ‘The Veteran,’ ” she told me one afternoon this summer in her sun-filled living room. “And that’s how I felt—like a veteran.” She shifted in her seat, searching for the right words. “There is a difference between supporting the death penalty as a concept and being the person who actually watches its application. Being human, I knew there were bound to be cracks in the veneer. I just thought somehow it wouldn’t happen to me.”
Parker poem from Complete Poems, by Dorothy Parker. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books. A member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright 1999 by the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People.