For Lyle May, the death penalty is not a cause, a protest, or a political debate—at least, not entirely. It's the sound of prison guards' boots pinging against the floor as they approach a condemned man's cell. It's looking on as a friend packs his few belongings into a cardboard box. It's hugging his neck during a final goodbye. It's knowing that after his heart beats for the last time, some other inmate is one moment closer to the day he, too, feels the sting of a needle.
May has been down that particular road dozens of times since he was convicted of killing a woman and her son and disposing of their bodies along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville nearly twenty years ago. And not every man he has seen take the long, lonely walk to Central Prison's "death watch" block—the solitary section of death row that sits adjacent to the execution chamber—has stoically accepted his fate.
Eddie Hartman was a mentor of sorts, a man May shared countless laughs with over card games. So as his execution date approached in the fall of 2003, May tried his best to be both a shoulder to cry on and a sounding board for the friend who found himself, at long last, contemplating his fleeting mortality.
"At some point, you just have to be OK with being executed, with dying," May says. "Well, he wasn't. He said, point blank, 'I don't want to die. I don't want this to end.' What do you say to someone who you know is about to die? I wanted to be anywhere but this place."
There's nothing dignified about those last few days, nothing to signal to the men left on the row that everything will be OK. Just a handshake. A long, emotional embrace. And then, for hours, silence—an eerie calm May likens to waiting for a storm to pass.
"You try to find something to take your mind away from what's happening," he says. "And just like a tornado, once it's over, [dwelling on the aftermath] is useless. There's nothing you can do."
It's the unease that comes with knowing that you, too, will one day take that same final walk that makes living on the row a unique incarceration experience. For May, that wait is his personal hell.
"It's absolutely torture," he says. "It's absolutely on my mind every day I wake up, every time I go to sleep. In here, it's really difficult to think about having a future. Without that threat—that constant worry that all I'm doing now would be for nothing and that I will eventually die in an execution chamber—life would be incredibly different."
And in North Carolina, thanks to a de facto moratorium that has been in place for more than ten years, that wait is indeterminate—because, here, the death penalty is a cause, a protest, and a political debate.