Like so many people who find themselves taking a notable place in the annals of crime, Texas native Charles Brooks was an otherwise unexceptional individual. The interesting part of his case lies not in what he did, but in how he was punished for it. Born in Fort Worth on January 9, 1942, before his final incarceration he’d served time in Texas, Louisiana and the feared Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He would die for his crime at the notorious Huntsville Unit in Texas on December 7, 1982. Like New York’s William Kemmler in 1890 and Nevada’s Gee Jon in 1924, Brooks would share the dubious distinction of being the first American executed by a brand new method;
Contrary to what some might think Texas wasn’t the first State to adopt it. That was, in fact, Oklahoma which had retired ‘Old Sparky’ after the execution of James French in 1966. Unfortunately for French, newspaper didn’t use the headline he suggested (‘French Fries.’), but French’s loss has been many an internet humorist’s gain. Shocking, when you think about it.
Brooks, later to convert to Islam while on Death Row and name himself Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, committed the murder of mechanic David Gregory on December 14, 1976. While Brooks drew the death penalty, co-defendant Woody Lourdes received forty years. The fact that neither Lourdes or Brooks would admit who fired the shot caused the prosecutor to seek the death penalty for both of them. Later, during Brooks’s final days on Death Row, even the prosecutor himself would join Brooks’s lawyers to argue that to execute one rather than both was unjust. His opinion failed to influence anyone who could have stayed the executioner’s hand, fair though his point might have been.
Both were convicted of abducting Gregory from the used car lot he worked by taking one of the cars for a test drive. So far, so normal. The normality ended with Gregory tied to a chair in a seedy motel room, gagged and shot once in the head. Initially, both men were condemned, but Lourdes won a hearing for a new sentence and, unusually for a cold-blooded murder in Texas, found himself resentenced. Brooks, on the other hand, languished in the notoriously tough confines of the Texas death house.
The crime had been both brutal and unnecessary. The trial, it seemed, had been fair and Texan justice (usually pretty tough-minded) had been served. Charlie Brooks would pay for his crime like so many other Texan killers. Only not quite…
Prior to 1924, individual counties executed their condemned by hanging. In 1924 the decision was made for the State to take over and centralise executions at the newly-built death house at Huntsville. Not everybody liked the idea. Huntsville’s then-Warden, viewing prison as a place to reform and rehabilitate offender and not kill them, immediately resigned in protest. Someone else was needed to throw the switch on the ‘Texas Thunderbolt’ and a replacement Warden was duly found. Between 1924 and 1964, Huntsville oversaw the departure of no less than 364 ‘thunderbolt jockeys.’ Oddly, both the first and last men electrocuted in Texas were named Johnson. Even more oddly it wasn’t the first time the name Charles Brooks had adorned a Death Row nametag, his namesake having sat ridden the thunderbolt for murder on May 31, 1938. Another curious custom, apparently, was that, unlike in other States where a prisoner walking their last mile might be greeted with the brutally blunt words ‘Dead man walking.’ In Texas they started their final walk with an almost-childlike remark;
“We’re going to see Old Sparky.”
But that was then. Now the needle awaited its grand debut, Charles Brooks wanted to avoid assisting in it and, this method never having been used before, prisons in other States and the American media were watching very closely.
They were not to be disappointed. First the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal washed their hands of him. Then the US Supreme Court voted 6-3 against allowing another stay of execution. Finally the Texas State Board of Pardons and Paroles, as a rule seldom keen to grant either pardons or paroles to murderers, decided by a 2-1 vote not to give him a pardon, parole or stay, either. As the Texas State Governor is bared under State law from commuting a death sentence without the Board’s recommendation, it seemed that criminal history was about to be made.
The authorities were hoping it wouldn’t be similar history to that of Kemmler and Jon. Both making their debuts, officials New York’s Auburn Prison bungled Kemmler’s execution so terribly that witnesses collapsed and the world’s first electrocution was almost its last. As George Westinghouse bluntly put it:
“They would have done better with an axe.”
Gee Jon’s death in a hastily improvised gas chamber went slightly better. Granted, he died far more quickly than Kemmler, but if somebody hadn’t noticed a strong smell of bitter almonds the leaking chamber might well have despatched all the official witnesses as well. Nobody wanted Charlie Brooks to be another Kemmler or Jon.
Brooks had arrived for his second stay in a Texas prison as inmate ‘EX-592’ on April 25, 1978. In Texas Death Row inmates are numbered in order of their death sentence, so Brooks was 592nd condemned inmate to wear the ‘EX’ prefix (short for ‘executee’) on his mugshot. Conditions were better than his first visit as ‘Inmate 214019,’ but security was tighter. With the needle’s debut in mind the authorities took every possible precaution to keep him alive until the big day.
This time, the prayers of all involved (except possibly Charles Brooks himself) were answered. After a huge last meal (a tradition Texas has since discontinued) of T-bone steak, French fries, ketchup, biscuits, Worcestershire sauce, peach cobbler and ide tea, Brooks was strapped securely to a stretcher and wheeled into Huntsville’s death chamber. There he spoke his final words, a brief prayer to Allah. At 12:09am on December 7, 1982 an anonymous ‘technician’ started to administer a three-drug sequence of sodium pentathol, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. At 12:16am it was over according to plan and criminal history had been made.
Charles Brooks was dead.
Just as the electric chair and gas chamber had caught on, swiftly replacing the gallows almost everywhere in the United States, the seemingly quick end of Charles Brooks had a similar effect. State after State discarded ‘Old Sparky’ and the ‘Coughing Box’ in favour of the new technology. Today, a few States offer inmates a choice, but lethal injection has almost entirely consigned its predecessors to history. But not quite…
With the European Union ordering its resident drug companies not to provide the drugs used in lethal injection, increasing difficulties in obtaining them lawfully elsewhere and the American public increasingly doubting the death penalty’s usefulness, some States have gone back in time. Missouri has considered building another gas chamber. Oklahoma is considering a brand-new gas chamber using the (apparently) more humane nitrogen gas instead of cyanide. Tennessee has dusted off its electric chair and Florida has threatened to do likewise.
A series of botched executions using different and untested drugs to replace those often unavailable hasn’t helped the needle’s case, either. It seems perhaps that some American legislators, resenting what they see as foreigners interfering in American justice and internal affairs, have adopted the defiant attitude of ‘If you don’t let us do something unpleasant we’ll just bring back something worse.’