When a close basketball game between Duke and UNC comes down to the final seconds, the opinions of almost everyone in the arena are unambiguous. At those moments, the lines are clearly drawn; fans are at their self-centered worst, wanting just one thing–a final winning basket scored to put a dagger into the hearts of their foes.
Such certainty of opinion has also been evidenced seven times in the last 15 weeks at Raleigh’s Central Prison on Western Boulevard where on seven Fridays–each time at precisely 2 a.m. –seven condemned men have been injected with lethal doses of poison. It’s been more than 50 years since North Carolina has experienced such a prodigious spree of state-sanctioned killing.
In that half century, most of the world’s nations have come to abhor–and abolish–capital punishment. That’s not the case in North Carolina, however, a Bible Belt state where the Old Testament is often the moral standard, and revenge–a life for a life–is just fine, thank you.
On execution nights at Central Prison, the depth of peoples’ emotions about killing those who kill is on full public display. Last Friday it was Robbie James Lyons who was wheeled into the death chamber on a gurney, as candle-holding death penalty opponents stood in the bone-chilling cold rain.
A handful of people sat in a small witness room to watch Lyons die. For defense lawyers, Buddy Conner and Kirk Osborn, there was a combination of sadness and anger as they watched their client die. Conner said he decided to watch the execution so Lyons would have somebody “there that loved him.”
“Somebody needed to be in there that cared for him, and I was going to be there for him,” Conner said.
Osborn, who looked shaken after he emerged from the prison, said Lyons’ execution was a “premeditated, deliberate murder on the part of the state for an unintentional killing. … This is sick, sick.”
Osborn said the experience is going to change his life. “I’m going to redouble my efforts to get rid of the death penalty,” he said.
Forsyth County assistant district attorney David L. Hall, who also watched the execution, saw things quite differently. For Hall, who didn’t even prosecute the case, Lyons’ death seemed almost triumphal.
“The long and violent criminal career of Robbie James Lyons came to an end this morning just after 2 a.m. with his execution here at Central Prison,” Hall said. “We deeply regret that Lyons chose to live the kind of life that he lived and that he caused so much pain to the victims of his crimes, to his own family and ultimately to himself.”
For Ramona Stafford, whose husband, Stephen, was gunned down by Lyons 10 years ago, there was no expression of sorrow for Lyons as she and four of her family members watched the execution.
While most victims’ family members are content to witness the execution and quietly slip away without talking to the press, Ramona had jotted down some handwritten notes and walked into the media interview room ready to talk about how justice had been served.
“The death sentence has been carried out for this killer,” Stafford said in a calm, clear voice. “This family appreciates the support and encouragement we have received from our friends and those that have handled the many appeals. We are thankful to the governor that he allowed the sentence of death to be carried out this evening.”
With her family members standing behind her nodding their heads in agreement, Stafford even complained that the execution process doesn’t come fast enough for killers. “I would love to see this process expedited for crime victims,” she said, adding that those who support a moratorium “do not understand the multiple appeals and the number of judges who have reviewed these cases and the road that survivors must travel to get justice for their loved ones.”
Stafford also thinks lethal injection is too painless. She had previously suggested executions be carried out in ways similar to how the murder was committed. “The death that Lyons had tonight was a painless one,” she said. “I think of my husband’s death, and it was certainly not painless.”
Ironically, Stafford made her comments in almost the exact same spot where Robbie’s mother, Eleanor Lyons had stood several hours earlier as she and her two other sons prepared to leave the prison grounds after saying their final good-byes to Robbie, choosing not to witness the execution.
Eleanor, who came to North Carolina from her New Jersey home to be with her son, had been criticized in news accounts for being an unfit, neglectful mother. But, on this day, she stayed at her oldest son’s side to comfort him in his final hours. She had also called on Gov. Mike Easley to spare her child’s life. Seven times of late, Easley has been asked the same thing by scores of family members, and seven times Easley’s office put out a press release stating: “I find no convincing reason to grant clemency… .”
Eleanor said her son was “very witty,” in his last hours. “He’s OK. He’s doing good. He’s holding up pretty good.”
On the final day of his life, Robbie was permitted his only contact visit with his family since he arrived at Central Prison nine years ago. “The only positive thing that came out of this is the fact that I was able to touch him for the last time,” Eleanor said, “touch him, kiss him, talk with him without bars between us. That was the only positive thing about the whole thing.”
Before she left, Eleanor was asked to sign some papers releasing three grocery-size, white plastic bags containing her son’s property. “I love you,” were her final words to her son, Eleanor said. He said the same to her.
Ramona Stafford was unmoved by Eleanor Lyons’ pain.
“I think it’s a little late now to show concern for Robbie,” Ramona said when asked if she was in any way identifying with Eleanor Lyons. “She should have been there all those early years when his behavior development and so forth was taking place. It’s a little late.”
Those who came to know Lyons during his years on death row said his was a life of addiction and bad breaks. Friends said that underneath all the layers of pain and violence, Lyons was a bright, caring man who had a knack for drawing and always sent out beautiful handmade cards to his family and friends.
Jeanne Abbott of Hickory, who called Lyons her pen pal, said she and her 14-year-old daughter, Erin Cheney, had exchanged letters with Lyons and found him to be an intelligent and loyal friend. Abbott, who also visited Lyons, said he was self-educated, passionate and curious about many things. Abbott said she wrote a letter to Easley asking him to spare Lyons’ life. Even from behind bars, Lyons was a positive influence on the lives of his brothers, “keeping them on the straight and the narrow and the lawful even while he’s been incarcerated for the past nine years,” Abbott said.
Lyons sent one of his handmade cards to Erin on her birthday. “He was just thrilled that he was able to give somebody else a smile; that he was able to make somebody else feel good,” Abbott said.
Among the three media witnesses to Lyons execution was WRAL-TV news anchor Pam Saulsby. While her co-anchor, David Crabtree (who spoke Saturday in Durham at a conference of death penalty opponents) has spoken out against the death penalty, Saulsby, who is African American, echoed the sentiments of the assistant district attorney, Hall, who said: “The judgment of the court was carried out without event this morning. Mr. Lyons passed away very peacefully.”
Said Saulsby: “It was very sterile, and it seemed very peaceful … He stopped praying and that was it, so it was a very peaceful transition for him.”
Asked if she was troubled by the fact that more than half of the people on the state’s death row are African American, Saulsby said, “I don’t have a statement on that that I wish to share.”
The reference to Lyons’ peaceful death riled Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, who sent an e-mail to Saulsby saying that “the lethal injection process was developed by the Nazis,” and that scientific evidence suggests physical pain and suffering occurs during lethal injection.
“I understand you said you chose to not comment on the fact that most of North Carolina’s death row is composed of African-Americans,” Dear wrote. “But your comment on the supposed peacefulness of the killing is an overreaching editorial comment and reflects an ignorance that can no longer be tolerated from journalists who chose to witness executions. The only person who could make such a statement about what you think you saw would be Robbie Lyons, had he been able to move a muscle while being poisoned.”
In her reply, Saulsby wrote: “Sir: It appeared to be peaceful. I was not in that man’s skin. I would not presume to know his experience. Thank you. Best wishes. Pam Saulsby.”
In his final statement, knowing the battle was lost, Lyons did not appear bitter.
“It is from Allah that I come, and it is to Allah that I return,” he said. “If my death brings another person happiness, then I’m happy for them.”