Tinkering with the Machinery of Death

by Mike Mariani


On the morning of December 14, 1976, Charlie Brooks Jr. and Woody Loudres waited outside a liquor store on Rosedale Avenue in Fort Worth, Texas. Across town, Loudres’ girlfriend, Marlene Smith, had just turned a trick in exchange for renting a car. She swung by and picked them up. The trio then drove to the New Lincoln Motel, where Loudres and Smith were staying. Known as a haven for prostitutes and a shooting gallery for junkies, the couple had set up transient quarters in Room 15 at the New Lincoln. The three of them shot up heroin at the motel before driving to Brooks’ mother’s house to start boozing.

Charlie Brooks grew up in a solidly middle-class black family in Fort Worth. His father, Charles Brooks Sr., had a well-paying job as a meat cutter at the Swift & Co. Meatpacking Plant. Far from neglected, his children were raised in a strong Methodist household. Some even called Charlie Jr. pampered, both for the namesake of his father and the beneficiary of his love and affection. After Charles Sr. died at 55, Charlie inherited his new Chevy and the pension that had been made in his name. He became a football player at I.M. Terrell High School, one of the popular kids. He would later marry his high school girlfriend, Joyce Easley. But somewhere down the line—who can pinpoint these bend sinisters?—he started using drugs, committing burglaries. While his two sons by Joyce were growing up, he was slipping in and out of prison.

Glazed on dope and booze, Charlie and the motel couple were driving into Fort Worth to go on a shoplifting spree. Marlene loved to steal. But on their way into town, the rental vapor-locked and wouldn’t start. Determined to go forward with the day’s festivities, Charlie asked to test drive a car at a nearby used car lot. With an employee named David Gregory in tow, the three stole the car and early that evening returned to the New Lincoln with Gregory in the trunk. After being led into Room 17, Gregory was bound to a chair with coat hangers, gagged with tape, and shot once in the head.

Charlie and Loudres didn’t even last until midnight. Threatening to kill her if she ratted, they had told the motel manager’s wife they were “going to have to kill” a man, and police found the body no more than 15 minutes after they fled the scene. After actually trying to return to the New Lincoln later that night, the two men went to a friend’s house where the cops caught up with them. Calculating killers these men were not. They were sloppy junkies in a heroin haze so dense that grand theft auto, kidnapping, and murder all meshed together in a somnambulant swirl detached from consequence. As Brooks would later say in an apology for the murder, “I was so out of it that I can’t even identify with being there.”

For Charlie Brooks the road to death row was as fast and bleakly nondescript as the wanton string of events that got him there. On December 3, 1977, not a year after the killing of auto repairman David Gregory, Charlie was sentenced to die. In the years that followed Charlie converted to Islam, taking the name Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim.1 He also researched his case diligently. Most prisoners facing capital punishment do. He told visitors that his three sustaining pursuits in prison were Islam, law, and chess.

During his appeals in prison, he brought his case before 23 different judges. Nothing budged. Eventually an execution date was set for December 7, 1981. Charlie’s court-appointed counsel, William E. Burdoch and Glen E. Eakman, were able to push the date back a year. It would be his final reprieve.

As December of 1982 approached, the hour grew late; frantic gestures set in. Charlie and his attorneys filed more appeals, asked for more stays of execution. He thought his best shot lay with the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court.

On the morning of December 6, scant hours before the 40-year-old ex-football player from Fort Worth was set to die, the three-judge panel for the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court met in New Orleans to review Charlie’s appeals. At around 12:30 he heard over the radio that they would not grant him a stay. Appeals ricocheted from district to federal judges well into the night. In a twist seemingly flashed in from the reels of a white-knuckle courtroom drama, at around 9 p.m. Charlie’s prosecutor in the original court trial called the federal district judge to speak for the defense. He had a guilty conscience over Charlie’s sentence, his impending death. His junkie partner in crime, Loudres, only got 40 years. The disparity was gnawing at him. But the federal judge turned him down, too. If your own ex-prosecutor can’t save you, then probably no one can. Charlie Brooks Jr. was going to be the first man in American history to be executed by lethal injection.

Contrary to the widespread misconception that it is a late twentieth-century invention, developed as a humane alternative to the medieval barbarisms of the electric chair and the noose, lethal injection hails from older and more ghastly origins. During WWII, Nazi Germany carried out its euthanasia program, granting “mercy deaths” to Jews and Gypsies, the disabled and the mentally ill. In the early stages of the Action T4 program,2 the Nazi regime used an injection of lethal drugs to kill infants and children suffering from physical handicaps and mental impairments. Eventually this method of execution was deemed too slow and expensive, as Hitler would turn to the hyper-efficient gas chambers in his quest for Aryan purity. The experimentation with lethal injection was for the most part lost to history, ceding both spotlight and stigma to the notoriously prolific gas chambers. That is until a few Oklahomans, keen on cutting the costs of Old Sparky and modernizing state-sanctioned executions, resurrected it nearly 40 years later.

In 1977, Oklahoma State Senator Bill Dawson and State Representative Bill Wiseman found themselves in a capital punishment bind. It was going to cost the state $62,000 to repair its electric chair and the immediate alternative, building a gas chamber, would run them around $300,000. They were also seeking to move on from the lurid nature of death by electrocution, which was prone to unpredictable vagaries and gruesome deaths, including burning flesh, heads bursting into flame, and eyeballs popping out of their sockets.3 As Wiseman himself put it to the Tulsa World, electrocutions were “kind of a combination of Barnum & Bailey and reform.”

A year earlier, in 1976, Wiseman appealed to the Oklahoma Medical Association for help in developing a new execution protocol, but he was quickly rejected amid concerns over medical ethics. As the American Medical Association (AMA) prohibits physicians from participating in state-sanctioned executions, this would be the first of many such rejections, forcing state legislatures and correctional facilities over the next 30 years to meander helter-skelter into a medical field they knew nothing about. After being spurned by the Oklahoma Medical Association, Wiseman sought out the state’s chief medical examiner, Jay Chapman. Chapman, whose main responsibilities included performing autopsies and investigating unusual deaths, had no experience with drugs, anesthesiology, or euthanasia. As he put it to Wiseman and Dawson, he was “an expert in dead bodies but not in getting them that way.”

Undaunted by the prospect that they might be seeking counsel from the wrong man, in the wrong profession, the two state congressmen met with Chapman in Wiseman’s office in Oklahoma City. This meeting, ad hoc though it may seem today, would serve as the inception of the modern era of lethal injection. In the meeting Chapman dictated a drug protocol as Wiseman scribbled frantically in a yellow legal pad: “An intravenous saline drip shall be started in the prisoner’s arm, into which shall be introduced a lethal injection consisting of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic.” Chapman would later specify the drugs to be used: sodium thiopental for the barbiturate, and chloral hydrate as the paralytic agent. With a potential new execution method in hand, Senator Dawson wrote a letter to his friend Dr. Stanley Deutsch, head of the Anesthesiology Department at the University of Oklahoma Medical School, seeking approval for the newly proposed drug cocktail. In his reply to Dawson, Deutsch asserted that “without question this is, in my opinion, extremely humane in comparison to either electrocution or execution by the inhalation of poisonous gases.” He further wrote that the two drugs would provide a “rapid[ly] pleasant way of producing unconsciousness” prior to death.

After consulting with Chapman and securing Deutsch’s imprimatur, Dawson and Wiseman put together the Oklahoma statute for lethal injection. It was terse and vague, copying almost verbatim the language used by Chapman and Deutsch: “The punishment of death must be inflicted by continuous, intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent until death is pronounced by a licensed physician according to accepted standards of medical practice.” Wiseman campaigned for the bill’s passage with macabre brinkmanship. According to the Tulsa World, he “placed on every legislator’s desk an envelope containing two pictures of a man who had been electrocuted. ‘It looked like seared meat,’ he said. ‘Some people just didn’t like it.’ ”

The bill gained steam quickly. Not only was lethal injection a relatively humane response to the looming savagery of the electric chair, it was also dirt cheap. Dawson told the Oklahoma state senate that while the electric chair would cost at least $50,000 to fix and a gas chamber upwards of $250,000 to install, each execution by lethal injection would run around $10. Boxes of rat poison cost more than that. It was a compelling two-pronged argument: fold up the Barnum & Bailey horror show, and introduce a significantly cheaper, more discrete alternative. The lethal-injection bill passed in the Oklahoma Senate and the House of Representatives in the spring of 1977. It was signed into law on May 10. Eager to follow suit with the inexpensive, PR-friendly killing method, Texas passed a near-identical bill the very next day.

Because the law provided no specifics regarding drugs, dosages, and administration, after it was passed Chapman again went about tinkering. At this point, he had already devised the two-drug protocol consisting of a fast-acting anesthetic, sodium thiopental, and a powerful paralytic, pancuronium bromide. A massive dose of sodium thiopental produces unconsciousness, and the pancuronium bromide paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs, causing death. In combination and at sufficient doses, the two drugs are more than enough to kill a person. After all, this was the protocol approved by the anesthesiologist Stanley Deutsch. Nevertheless, Oklahoma’s chief medical examiner continued working on the lethal injection cocktail into 1981, when he would introduce a third drug.

Potassium chloride, otherwise known as rock salt, was Chapman’s final modification. Of the three drugs it is the last to be administered, inducing cardiac arrest and stopping the heart permanently. The introduction of potassium chloride immediately raised eyebrows, first because it was seen as an unnecessary addition to what was already a perfectly lethal cocktail, and second because of the potential for agonizing suffering. If administered on its own, potassium chloride is widely known to cause extreme pain as potassium ions set the veins on fire en route to the heart. Thus in order to avoid dealing the prisoner an excruciating death, the anesthetic must first render complete unconsciousness, with no chance of overlap. The heart-stopping rock salt was just one more drug to juggle. It made timing more critical, narrowed the margin for error, and blew open the chances of cruel and unusual punishment.

So the question was, why add it? Chapman often defended his choices by saying that administering three lethal drugs ensures death absolutely, erasing the chance that a prisoner might survive the procedure. But suspicions have always lingered as to his true motivations. In an email exchange with Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno decades later, Chapman remarked that “Perhaps hemlock is the answer for all the bleeding hearts who completely forgot about the victims—and their suffering—Socrates style. The things that I have seen that have been done to victims is [sic] beyond belief. And we should worry that these horses’ patoots should have a bit of pain, awareness of anything—give me a break.” A secret apathy and even antipathy toward death row inmates would certainly feed a riveting (if a bit Dexter-ish) narrative—hardened state medical examiner surreptitiously manipulates lethal injection protocol to punish killers and avenge the murdered innocents he presides over in his day job.

Whatever the sensational overtones, the fact remains that Chapman was operating with no oversight, complete impunity. He probably never needed to add potassium chloride, thereby creating the controversial overkill cocktail that at least 36 states have adopted since. But despite the immediate popularity of the new method of capital punishment, it would take five years for Chapman’s cocktail to debut in the American death chamber.

At midnight on December 7, 1982, Texas attorney general Mark White called the Walls Unit in Huntsville—Texas’s death row—and informed them they could proceed with the execution. By that time, Charlie Brooks had already been in the death chamber for close to half an hour. The 15 men and women in the witness room had been gabbing nervously, shifting skittishly from one costume to another—loyal consorts, depraved voyeurs, handmaidens of death—in the grim tableaux that is the monster’s ball. When asked for his last words, Charlie spoke a few lines in Arabic from the Koran, and then their English translation: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” And then the last two words he would ever say: “Be strong.” The executioners began pumping the fatal drugs into the IV line, a serpent cannula coursing with venom whose fangs sunk into his right forearm. They were using the three drugs from Chapman’s protocol and the order and timing had to be precise, but for all other parties concerned no distinctions were drawn. It all flowed together in the same inexorable direction.

Attending the execution for Texas Monthly, Dick Reavis observed Charlie’s final moments:

He was flexing his right fist, open, then closed, open and closed. After a moment, a look of absolute, unmitigated terror took over his face, tightening its muscles more, pulling his eyelids into their folds. Tears came to his eyes but did not spill onto his cheeks. He did not whimper, or make any sound. His agony of anticipation—because the intravenous line went to the arm farther from the executioners’ needle—was too long. It was perhaps a minute, perhaps two minutes, before he felt death creeping in.

Toward the end of his silent confrontation with death, Charlie lurched his head back and forth. In his story for Texas Monthly, Reavis recalled how in his conversations with the death row inmate, the two of them made a pact that if Brooks was in pain during the injection procedure, he would signal to Reavis by shaking his head from left to right. In his final moments, was Charlie signaling to the media, to the outside world, that his execution was causing him undue pain and suffering? Anesthetized, paralyzed, and ragged in the jaws of death, it was nearly impossible to tell. If Brooks was in great pain in those midnight minutes of December 7, nobody could have known it. The second chemical in Chapman’s protocol, pancuronium bromide, causes complete paralysis. Even if the heart-stopping dose of potassium chloride were causing the inmate excruciating agony, the witnesses couldn’t see it. Pancuronium bromide casts the illusion of serenity in the death chamber, leaving prisoners placid and inanimate in their glass coffins.

Whether or not Charlie Brooks felt pain in his final moments is a question that’s lingered over arguably every lethal injection that followed. Since Brooks, over 1,200 prisoners have been killed in this U.S. using this method. While Chapman’s cocktail (or some variation thereof) has been used for most of them, in 2011 the three-drug protocol was suddenly in jeopardy. That year, U.S. pharmaceutical company Hospira announced it would no longer be manufacturing sodium thiopental, the powerful anesthetic critical to lethal injections. After warning prison officials against using its drugs for state-sanctioned executions, Hospira finally decided to discontinue production on the barbiturate. This left the American penal system in a scramble to find sufficient alternatives. For a time, state correctional facilities were finding other, sketchier sources of the coveted sodium thiopental.4 But when the Drug Enforcement Agency seized caches of the drug from several states in the summer of 2011 over concerns about sourcing, the jig was up.

In late 2011, the European Union issued an embargo on exporting drugs to the U.S. that would be used for lethal injections, including sodium thiopental and pentobarbital. As once-reliable pharmaceutical companies on both sides of the Atlantic turned their backs, American death rows grew increasingly desperate and brazen. With no clear source for the drugs originally prescribed by Chapman, states had two choices: either look to the international market, where questions about safety and purity abound, or tweak the protocol. U.S. prisons did both. Like a handful of junkies bound by their common plight, execution states even started sharing their stashes. When, after combing the whole country in search of sodium thiopental, California was able to secure a supply from Arizona, a prison official wrote in an email to his benefactors, “You guys in AZ are life savers.” Even the irony was spinning out of control.

With so much convolution, dubious sourcing, indiscriminate prison officials, and labyrinthine supply chains, something was bound to give. Correctional facilities were keeping the American death row system running by doubling as amateur clinics. They were scoring stockpiles of barbiturates from India, copping deals and breaking bad in the Arizona desert. It was not a matter of if something would go wrong, but when and where. Achieving a sort of Southwestern gothic symmetry, the lethal injection high-wire act collapsed where it had started three decades ago, in Oklahoma. On April 29, 2014, at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, death row inmate Clayton Lockett paid the price for an American institution running on fumes and smoke screens.

After the prison’s execution team repeatedly failed to find a vein for the IV so they could begin the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, they finally inserted the catheter in his femoral vein, in his upper groin. After administering the relatively untested sedative midazolam, the lethal course of a paralytic agent and the heart-stopping potassium chloride began. Then Lockett woke up. A member of the execution team had either punctured or missed his vein when first injecting the catheter, and the drugs were spreading through his surrounding tissue instead of his bloodstream. He moaned and writhed on the gurney for over 30 minutes before dying of a heart attack. It was a messy, agonizing death, and a spectacular rallying cry for opponents of capital punishment. Lockett’s botched execution led to the Supreme Court’s decision to review Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol to determine whether it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Other states like Florida, Arizona, and Ohio that use similar drug protocols will be watching the proceedings closely, hoping the end of the age of America as executioner has not drawn near.

Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.