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.