Skip to content

Lyle C. May
Prison Journalist and Abolitionist

This interview was conducted over phone with Lyle C. May by Aseel Ibrahim, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. May is currently on Death Row in North Carolina.


During your time in prison, you earned a BA from Ohio University. Why did you decide to pursue higher education while being incarcerated? How has the right to higher education impacted your life? 
It was a really basic choice. The priests that offered it to me said, "You need to get something on your mind other than executions, other than the misery of prison. What would you say to trying a correspondence course?" The first course I took was a social psychology course at UNC, and it really set my mind on fire because it began explaining things that I had always wondered about and I just fell in love with learning probably for the first time in a way that I had never in grade school or junior high or high school. So I've never looked back really. I took one course after another and ultimately, I ended up earning an associate's degree in 2013. I'm currently a few courses from finishing my bachelor's.


As you know, Alabama recently became the first state to use nitrogen gas to execute someone on death row. Despite the controversy around this method, the state plans to execute others with nitrogen gas. What is your reaction to Alabama’s decision?

Kenneth Smith’s execution with the use of nitrogen hypoxia was actually his second execution, and the first execution Alabama botched. The people who were putting the needles for the lethal injection into Kenneth couldn't find a vein and they kept jabbing him with these needles, practically torturing him in the process. Ultimately, they were unable to put him to death in the allotted time by Alabama's execution protocol. So they stopped, and they sent him back to the block. It's important to focus on the fact that this man had a botched execution and was sent back to death row. It's extremely rare to survive an execution but the fact that you will not only survive one, but subsequently be using a new execution method . . . it's just unheard of, and unconscionable and downright horrific.

It's important to now hone in on the idea that you have an attorney general, in a state that is calling on other attorney generals, to follow Alabama's example. They don't care that it's cruel and unusual punishment; they're ignoring the Eighth Amendment. Sure enough, Oklahoma is following suit. Louisiana has submitted legislation to use nitrogen hypoxia, Mississippi too, and I'm sure there will be other GOP led states that follow suit. Probably the scariest thing for us on death row is that you have GOP candidates who are running on the death penalty, and we could easily see [the government] adopting something like this, especially if a conservative Republican gets elected to governor. And that's scary, because it just goes to show you that it's no longer or has never really been about [public] safety. It's never been polite, or civilized. There is no such thing as a civilized death when it comes to executing somebody. Murder is not civilized, and claiming otherwise is false.


How has the mental stress of capital punishment impacted your life?

I'm fortunate that I read and I write and I study, and these wear off the worst effects of what is a capital sentence. That's the stress and anxiety and declining mental health that a lot of people on death row experience. I think it's important to know that just about half of the people on death row take psychotropic medications, because they can't actually cope with that stress. The main impact of a death sentence on the psyche is the result of the continued and pervasive threat of death by the state and their intent to kill you. It's important that you fight against that in every way that you can. The main thing that's helped me is education. It not only helps me grow and change as a human being, but it's helped me learn about the environment that I'm in and ward off the worst effects of a capital sentence. That's why I write books that are cathartic and meditative, but also very important to have a purpose in my life, despite where I am.


How has being in prison changed your view on human rights?

I'll have been in prison for 26 years on July 10, 2024,  so my understanding of human rights is from that angle, because prior to that, it wasn't really a concept that was in my headspace. I didn't really understand what human rights are until I came to death row and began seeing my friends walked off one by one to be executed. That weighs on you and it changes the way you think, having that kind of a closeness to that experience. And you begin to understand human rights are more than this ideal. It's more than this thing that people fight for, in a very general sense, but something that is very specific to fighting for individual human rights. 

My understanding of human rights is about the sanctity of life. You know, we often hear this in the news, especially in relation to abortion or IVF treatment and ironically enough, that's never in conjunction with the same conversation with capital punishment. And whatever your belief system is, regarding the sanctity of life, you have to understand that protecting life means protecting those who are actually alive - not dehumanizing them, not degrading them, walling them off, closing them within this confined 7 x9 space for decades at a time, not fixating them with nitrogen or injecting them with chemicals, not shooting them or hanging them, or whatever execution method seems to be the choice of a particular state.

Human rights are about so much more than just the pursuit of the sanctity of life. There is the resistance to anything that undermines that sanctity - that includes policies and politics. That's where I find myself on the front line protecting human right that so many people overlook. And if you're somebody that says, "Well, I support human rights, but I don't support people getting out of prison," maybe you need to examine that a little bit more closely. Because human rights extend to all people, not just those you want to extend it to, but everyone.


What would you say to people who believe execution is a justifiable form of punishment?

I would ask them to remember that innocent people get put on death row; innocent people get sent to death. We know this because over 170 people have been exonerated from death row in the last 30 or 40 years. We can even look at the most recent example in North Carolina of Henry McCollum, who ultimately ended up becoming the highest paid exonerate in US history. Everybody assumed for the longest time that Henry deserved to be executed. I would say to anybody that is supportive of the death penalty to take into consideration that very dysfunctional system that would put an innocent man in prison for 31 years and then use him to overturn a law that would rectify some of the racial injustice that occurs. I would tell the people who are supportive of the death penalty that in North Carolina alone, the average reversal rate on appeal of a death sentence is 70%. Seventy percent of the people who are sentenced to death are reset or receive new trials because of unconstitutional errors in their trials, in their representation in their prosecution, in the way law enforcement investigate a case, and so many other issues. And I would like to take this opportunity to remind people that the word justice often ends up meaning revenge and retribution. It has nothing to do with equality. It has nothing to do with equity. It's all about retribution. And retribution does not solve crime. It doesn't make the public safe. It doesn't deter people. That's just what it is. It's retribution.


How can the general public support people on death row?

I think the most basic thing you could do is pay attention to your local election. The death penalty is very specific, especially this year, to who you vote for in the primaries, for Attorney General, and for the governor's office, because these are the two most prominent gatekeepers. We can't get the House and the Senate to overturn the death penalty, as it currently stands today, because it's not something that GOP supports. That means you have to do it at the level of the governor's seat and at the Attorney General's Office. Then you go even further and you look at your races for District Attorney. You find out who is currently a district attorney that's vocally supportive of the death penalty and you vote against them. It's really that simple. 

If you're not feeling voting as the only thing that you can do, then I would suggest getting informed about not just capital punishment, but all the interrelated topics. And that can mean who you vote for the state Supreme Court. Part of the problem that we have right now is that we have a GOP majority in the state Supreme Court. They've already shown a willingness to overturn precedent set by a court previously that was upholding human rights. It's important to pay attention to these things - local politics matter where the death penalty is concerned. Your state Supreme Court, your Attorney General, your DA, and your governor, you should know what their positions are on the death penalty and vote accordingly.

Lyle C. May's book Witness: An Insider's Narrative of the Carceral State is now out through Haymarket Books. Purchase a copy here.