For more than a decade, Michelle Lyons’ work has required her to watch death row inmates die by lethal injection, first as a reporter and then as a Texas state employee.
Texas is America’s most prolific executioner state, killing 572 inmates since 1982 – about half of whom Michelle witnessed – at Huntsville State Prison.
Seeing so many deaths took its toll on Michelle, 45, who said the ‘worst’ final statement she had witnessed was from a father who gave his ex-wife a middle finger years after being recognized guilty of murdering their daughters.
Cameron (Todd) Willingham’s rant was so obscene that the director began the execution to have him arrested.
Michelle, who wrote a book called Death Row: The Final Minutes, told the Mirror: “Her last statement was the worst I have ever seen. It was vulgar, it was hateful.
“His wife was watching from the witness room and the chaplaincy told me later that she had come to testify not on his behalf but as one of the victims.
“He directed so much vitriol at her that the Headmaster actually started the execution as he spoke to make him stop. “
Frontline PBS / YouTube)
Willingham, 36, gave his ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, the middle finger with his right hand while he was tied to the stretcher that evening in February 2004.
According to Michelle’s notes, Willingham said: “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man – convicted of a crime I did not commit.
“I was persecuted for 12 years for something I didn’t do.
“From the dust of God I have come, and to the dust I will return – so the earth will become my throne.
“I have to go, road dog. I love you, Gabby. “
Speaking to his wife, who was less than 10 feet behind a glass window, he said, “Hope you rot in hell, bitch. Hope you rot in hell.
“You bitch. I hope you rot, fuck shit. That’s all. “
Michelle said Willingham’s ex-wife didn’t look surprised and appeared to be shaking her head.
Their three daughters – one-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron and two-year-old Amber – died in a fire at the family home in the town of Corsica two days before Christmas in 1991.
Frontline PBS / YouTube)
Willingham, then 23, claimed to be woken up by Amber screaming “daddy” and he tried to reach his daughters, but the fire was too intense and he had to run away.
His wife was at the time buying Christmas gifts from a charity shop.
Since he was virtually unharmed, police did not believe his story that he tried to save his daughters.
Willingham has been charged with capital murder and arson, with prosecutors relying on the testimony of fire investigators and prison informant Johnny Webb.
Webb claimed Willingham confessed to him that he set the fire to cover up evidence that the children had been abused.
Frontline PBS / YouTube)
Willingham was tried eight months after the fire, in August 1992, and was convicted and sentenced to death in one of the most controversial death penalty cases in the United States.
Amid a last-minute appeal for clemency, Governor Rick Perry allowed the execution even though Webb had retracted his testimony and renowned expert Dr Gerald Hurst discovered there was no evidence of arson.
Before the execution, Willingham told his parents that he lied about only one thing, admitting that he had never crawled into the children’s room, according to a 2009 New Yorker article that raised doubts about the case and inspired the 2018 movie Trial by Fire.
According to Willingham’s parents, he told them, “I just didn’t want people to think I was a coward. “
Her body was cremated and her parents secretly spread some of her ashes on her children’s graves.
AFP via Getty Images)
Another final statement that is among the worst Michelle has ever heard is from Brian Keith Roberson, who was executed for fatally stabbing his neighbors James, 79, and Lillian Boots, 74, during a burglary in a suburb of Dallas in August 1986.
Roberson, 36, was one of two inmates killed on the same night in August 2000.
Tied to a stretcher, he said: “To all the racist whites in America who hate blacks and to all the blacks in America who hate themselves, the infamous words of my famous and legendary brother Nat Turner – you all kiss my black ass. Let’s do it. ”
He then looked at the family of his victims, telling them, “Be careful when you come home. Hope you don’t have a wreck and kill yourself. “
Michelle said: “At the first execution that night, the inmate was extremely angry and told the victim’s family that he hoped they would have had a car accident and died on the way home. them.
Corbis via Getty Images)
“On the other hand, the second inmate was so sorry, so sincere and was crying on the stretcher.
“Because they were executed 30 minutes apart, it was very moving to watch. “
That prisoner, David Oliver Cruz, 33, was executed for raping and stabbing Air Force cryptologist Kelly Donovan, 24, to death while out for a run near his base in San Antonio.
Michelle was just 22 when she witnessed her first execution in 1998, while working as a reporter for The Huntsville Item.
She took over the newspaper’s prison in January 2000, as Texas entered its most active decade for executions under Governors Perry and George W Bush.
A record 40 prisoners were executed in 2000.
The following year, in November 2001, Michelle was hired as a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The work went well beyond statements to the press. Michelle spoke to the prisoners, getting to know some of them, and sat with the families of the convicted or dead as the inmates were killed by a cocktail of drugs.
Of all the executions she has witnessed, there is one in particular that made Michelle cry two decades later.
There was nothing sympathetic about the killer, Ricky McGinn, 43, who murdered and raped his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie Flanary, in May 1993.
McGinn was put to death in November 2000 after then-governor Bush granted him a last-minute reprieve to obtain DNA tests, which confirmed his guilt.
Michelle, then working for a local newspaper, watched from a witness room alongside Frances, McGinn’s elderly mother, a Pentecostal pastor and mother of nine.
Brought into the room in a wheelchair, Frances, dressed in her Sunday bathing suit, stood up and put her wrinkled hands against the glass moments before her son breathed his last in the “austere” death chamber. .
Michelle said, “This one will always stand out because of her. He was not sympathetic, his case was horrible.
“They brought her mother and she was a very old age and she was wearing this floral dress.
“They brought her in a wheelchair and put her next to the window to make sure she and her son could see each other.
“She struggled to get up and put her hand on the glass and it completely destroyed me. “
Michelle, who quit her job in 2012, said she had done her best to compartmentalize her emotions and separate her work and personal life, but things changed after her daughter was born in 2005.
She said: “After I became a mom, I really had a hard time imagining how these women would come and see their sons die in front of them.
“The strength it would take… and it really, really started to bother my head.” “
Michelle remembers her feet feeling “heavy” and thinking “I can’t keep doing this” as she prepared to speak to reporters after an execution in 2012.
When she left that year, she had witnessed some 280 executions. All were administered by lethal injection and two were female.
Given her background as a journalist, she took notes on each one so that she could remember details in interviews afterwards.
Michelle, who now works in marketing, had no plans to write a book, but that’s what happened years later.
After everything she has witnessed, Michelle believes the death penalty is still an appropriate punishment for certain capital crimes.
She said: “It’s so incredibly complicated. For me, it’s an absolute case by case.
Texas has executed fewer prisoners in recent years, but it remains the US capital of the death penalty, far surpassing states like Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
- Death Row: The Last Minutes (Bonnier Books Ltd, rrp £ 16.99).