If you’d told me 20 years ago when I met Michelle Lyons at The Battalion newspaper – the student-run daily at Texas A&M University – that I’d one day be reviewing her book, I’d believe you.
She was, and is, ambitious and has always been destined for greatness.
She graduated college in three years and is fiercely intelligent and strong. She doesn’t play games to get you to like her. She doesn’t have to; everyone just does. What drew me to her was her sense of humor and sassiness. She was my best friend when we were reporters at The Huntsville Item. She visited me multiple times when I lived in Atlanta, Ga., and we spent about a thousand weeknights at this place called The Pub in downtown Huntsville where we played Don Henley, Aerosmith and Goo Goo Dolls on the jukebox. Maybe it was an escape from the intensity of what we did for a living.
We covered Death Row executions.
Well, mostly she did. I went to school board and city council meetings.
Michelle’s book, however, is not about our friendship. It’s about how Michelle Lyons witnessed hundreds of Death Row executions during her time as a Huntsville Item reporter, followed by a stint as a public information officer at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“I witnessed 38 of the 40 executions carried out in Texas in 2000, missing two because I was covering prison board meetings,” states a line in the book.
Guess who covered those two? Yours truly.
We were told back then – and it may still be the case today – that you get taken off the guest list if you miss an execution, so every single one had to be covered. They were easy stories. TDCJ hands you a folder when you walk in the door with the inmate’s information and background on the crime. When you leave, they hand you a sheet of paper detailing the inmate’s last meal and a transcription of his final statement, if there is one. The victim’s family and convict’s family are separated into two different rooms. The ones I witnessed, there were maybe 15 chairs in each room. You can see the other side through the glass, but you have zero contact with them. TDCJ has been doing this for a while and they know what the heck they are doing.
Easy stories but not easy subject matter.
Michelle talks a lot about the smell of the “lethal cocktail” of drugs that are pumped into the inmate’s veins as he’s put to sleep. Yeah, I keep saying “he;” the vast majority are men, although women such as Karla Faye Tucker have been put to death in the state of Texas.
The smell didn’t bother me. The fact that a person who raped and stabbed his 86-year-old grandmother was being put to death didn’t bother me.
But Michelle spent so much time in the Texas prisons that she came across some people who had good hearts, who were reformed, who were fueled by drugs and alcohol when they committed their crimes. Anyone with a beating heart is going to feel sad that someone is leaving behind a mother or a child who loves them.
Under different circumstances, she might have been friends with some of those inmates, and those inmates might have contributed great things to society. Some may even have been wrongfully convicted.
“Death Row: The Final Minutes” isn’t a political diatribe on the death penalty. It’s the story of how a young girl in her 20s, fresh out of Texas A&M University, started watching executions and writing about them for a living. It’s about how she was so good at it that the prison system recruited her away from the newspaper to help them share the truth with a public who isn’t all that receptive to the concept.
The book includes funny anecdotes (of course it does; it’s Michelle) and some colorful language.
It reminds me of a time when we suited up and showed up and did the damn job because it’s what you did. It reminds me that those people sitting on Death Row are people. Some of them may be evil incarnate. Many are not.
It’s difficult to characterize a book about Death Row executions as a “beautifully-told story,” but I’ll give you this: it’s unique. Very few people have watched 278 people die. I think Michelle is likely the only female who has done so. She’s managed to keep her grace and dignity and although she no longer works for the Texas prison system, she still lives in Huntsville and probably deals with a thousand messed-up memories each day when she drives by those razor-wired fences.
I just hope she’s listening to Goo Goo Dolls when she does.
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