Monday, February 7, 2011

Huntsville 1982; Remembering the First Modern Execution in Texas

If you had gone to a newsstand in Texas in February 1983, you would have been able to purchase a new issue of Texas Monthly magazine with a chilling, provocative cover;

A hooded, hollywoodish executioner holds aloft what has just become the replacement for the guillotine, the electric chair and the noose; the small, unceremonial but no less ritualistic lethal injection needle. Against an almost fiery glow, the shiny skin and hairy chest of the executioner could not be farther from the boring tan colored uniforms of Texas Department of Corrections employees who actually completed the task. But I’m guessing the cover, with those piercing eyes and lazily curled fingers, got attention aided by those two blocky, chilling words. “The End” was a pretty cheeky way to get attention, because the end it was referring to was actually a beginning.

Inside the issue, we learn of the man who was then the most famous criminal in Texas, though who has now mostly receded in popular memory. That man was Charlie Brooks, the first to be executed in Texas by lethal injection, and the first to have his sentence carried all the way from “ultimate” crime to “ultimate” punishment.

Reverend Carole Pickett, the chaplain assigned to comfort men before their executions remembers the moment in Within These Walls, his riveting memoirs from 2002. He explains how the guards and officials tasked with carrying out the execution were so nervous that for days leading up to Brooks’ death, they practiced with a guard in the role of Brooks. He practiced waiting in a small final cell. Pickett practiced coming to get him and together they took the short walk to the death chamber. The “tie-down team” as it was called then and is still called today, practiced strapping the guard down. Eventually, the routine was days old, and many of the questions about who would inject the IV, how to know when to begin, and where to stand, had largely given way to a calm, macabre procedure.

Pickett recollects what happened next:

“On this particular day, however, he erupted into a full scale panic attack as we entered the chamber, fighting the guards and refusing to cooperate. After a few seconds of surprised hesitation, the guards subdued him and, soon bathed in sweat, managed to force him onto the gurney, where the restraints were quickly applied” (58-59).

After this episode, which must have nearly given the men involved a heart attack, Pickett learned that the warden had instructed the guard to cause a scene intentionally, in order to make sure the men involved were prepared for this possibility. Pickett himself was tasked with making sure the person to be executed would be calm, but it is impossible to know what someone will do under such horrific circumstances.

But the tension was not only palpable inside the walls of the prison. It was a circus outside as well as midnight neared on that December evening in 1982. Several years before, the Texas legislature had hotly debated whether to bring back the practice, with passionate advocates on both sides appealing to the Bible, American history, and whatever other straws they could grasp. After that debate, the statute was verified as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1976, in Jurek v. Texas, and the intensity of interest and fascination, the question of if we would ever actually go through with an execution, became a major source of press and hype in the late 70’s.

It reached a fever pitch in 1983, when Charlie Brooks finally exhausted his appeals process, Reverend Carole Pickett and other prison officials began to prepare for his death, and Texas braced itself. It wasn’t all nervousness, however. There was celebration as well. This picture was taken outside the Walls Unit, the site of the execution, and was featured in the inside of that same Texas Monthly.
As Professor Dennis Longmire remembers, “almost all of the people there were protesting in support of the death penalty, and they were protesting with great relish. They were having a big party.” This picture couldn’t tell it better. “Justice Finally Prevails!” is written around a large, cartoonish needle on a sign held by a student whose beard and large glasses, in another era, might have adorned the face of an anti-Vietnam war protestor in D.C. Another student clutches the corner of a confederate flag, not so subtly associating the evening with a former episode in Texas history, while in his other hand we see a sign telling his R.A. “good luck” on a calculus test. Inside joke? Snarky suggestion that the R.A. is missing out on history? It’s hard to tell.

But it was one of those moments when when the participants felt themselves to be a part of historical movement, if not progress, and one finds certain rituals surrounding Brooks’ execution that continue nearly thirty years later. As with every Death Row inmate, there is an offender information page, which is now available online and lists prior convictions, a brief summary of the crime, and basic statistics like height, race of victim, and date of crime. Likewise, his final statement is archived on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, as well as his final meal; T-bone steak, french fries, ketchup, Worcestire sauce, biscuits, peach cobbler, and iced tea.

This kind of archiving, grim and macabre as it is, has aided in an increasingly ritualistic routine that has replaced the cultural fervor that accompanied early executions. Charlie Brooks got a Texas Monthly article, while in Utah, Gary Gilmore, the first person to be executed in all of America after 1976 (though not by lethal injection), got a book, Norman Mailer’s detailed and meticulous The Executioner’s Song, and a Saturday Night Live sketch. In the years since, there have been famous individuals strapped to the gurney, including Karla Faye Tucker, Kenneth McDuff, Gary Graham, and Cameron Todd Willingham. Tucker got countless evangelical Christian documentaries and constant press coverage on the 700 club. Willingham has become a symbol for wrongful execution among the anti-death penalty community ever since the New Yorker Article about his case.

But with these exceptions, the death penalty has receded from the cultural intensity, fear, and excitement that accompanied its rebirth on that evening in 1982. Few protest outside the execution, for or against the event, and few within the prison fear what has become a chillingly static rite. For Pickett, who went on to accompany ninety-four more men to the gurney, “It never got easier.”