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Thirty-four Years Ago, the First Person Died by Lethal Injection. It Was Controversial Then, Too

It was seen as more humane and relatively painless, but that’s not certain

Lethal injection as a means to execute condemned prisoners was first used thirty-four years ago. (YourNikonMan/Istockphoto)
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When Charles Brooks Jr. lay down on a gurney in the execution chamber, there was no way to know exactly what would happen next.

On this day in 1982, Brooks was the first person to be executed by injecting a cocktail of drugs intended to numb his body and mind, paralyze him and stop his heart. His death, the first by lethal injection, sparked an ethics debate among the public and physicians about whether the procedure is humane, one that continues today.

Brooks was convicted of murdering David Gregory, an auto mechanic, wrote Dick Reavis for Texas Monthly in early 1983. Gregory rode with Brooks during a test drive at the used-car lot where he worked. That night, he was found tied up in a motel room. He had been shot in the head. In separate trials, both Brooks and partner in crime Woodie Loudres were sentenced to die for the crime. Loudres was able to reduce his sentence, but Brooks was not, although no weapon was ever found and officials never determined who shot Gregory.

Lethal injection was seen to be more humane than other execution methods, like gas, electrocution or hanging, according to an article on History.com. Because one of the drugs used was supposed to put the condemned in a state of deep sedation, it was also perceived to be painless. In spite of physician protests that lethal injection was a violation of medical ethics, wrote Robert Reinhold of The New York Times, it was seen as acceptable. But conflicting witness reports at Brooks’s death led Reinhold to report that “the procedure did not seem to settle the question of whether such a death was painless.”

The conviction that landed Brooks on death row wasn’t his first. What was different this time:  he knew that if the state didn’t intervene in his case, he could become the first man on death row to be killed by a cocktail of drugs designed to numb his mind and stop his heart. “In his best mood,” Reavis wrote: “Charlie thought that there was nothing to fear in death by injection. He believed that he could set it up to be like the surgery after the first of his bullet woundings.”

Brooks and Reavis made an agreement: if the condemned man felt pain during his execution, he would shake his head, like he was saying “no,” and Reavis would understand. They repeated the agreement at each meeting.

In the end, the state didn’t grant Brooks a stay of execution. “For the first time in American penal history,” Reavis wrote, “men who were neither physicians nor sorcerers got ready to execute a prisoner with the forbidden tools of medicine and pharmacology,”

“According to four reporters who witnessed the execution in a tiny room at the edge of the prison’s Walls unit, Mr. Brooks appeared to have suffered some pain,” Reinhold wrote.

Reavis was one of those reporters. He wrote:

It was perhaps a minute, perhaps two minutes, before he felt death creeping in. The [sic] he slowly moved his head towards the left shoulder, and back towards the right, then upward, leftward again, as if silently saying no.

I snapped to erectness. Charlie was wagging his head: was that his signal to me?

He couldn’t be sure one way or the other.

Today, those killed by lethal injection are almost as likely to be guinea pigs for the procedure as Brooks was. Supplies of known lethal-injection cocktails are running out across the United States, reports Tess Owen for Vice. Injections nationwide are at a 25-year low, she writes, partially because it’s increasingly hard for corrections departments to get the drugs they need to perform them. This deficit has led to correctional departments trying untested mixes of drugs to replace the old standards they aren’t able to get anymore, with grim results. Only Texas, Georgia and Missouri are using the death penalty “with any regularity,” writes Mike Brantley for AL.com. But the death penalty remains legal, and those who face the prospect of death at state hands may potentially be killed using untried cocktails of drugs.

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