Controversial milestone: 25 years of lethal injection
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Charlie Brooks Jr., 40, with a self-etched Born to Die tattoo on his left forearm, lay on the gurney in the Texas death chamber 25 years ago today and became the first person in the United States to die by lethal injection.
Brooks also was the first person executed in Texas after an 18-year moratorium. He was the sixth person executed in the U.S. after the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted capital punishment by forcing the states to rewrite their laws to limit executions to heinous crimes.
Brooks was executed for murdering a 26-year-old Fort Worth auto mechanic by shooting him in the face during a botched, drug-and-alcohol-induced kidnapping.
Shortly after Brooks' death, a typed letter passed among death row inmates telling them to "open their eyes," executions were about to begin again.
"We all felt capital punishment would be abolished and all sentences would be commuted to life," death row inmate Joseph John Cannon of San Antonio told reporters at the time. "The Brooks execution sure proved us all wrong."
Since the Brooks execution, an additional 404 Texas inmates were executed before the U.S. Supreme Court created a de facto moratorium in September by agreeing to consider Kentucky cases on whether the chemicals used in lethal injection amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
In the intervening years, the Texas Legislature expanded the types of crimes than can result in death, including the murder of a child under the age of 6.
At the same time, the Supreme Court has reduced the field of killers eligible for death by limiting executions of mentally retarded and people who commit their crimes when under the age of 18. Meanwhile, the debate continues over whether capital punishment is appropriate.
For one, there are questions about whether executions are carried out equitably.
There are 134 Texas counties — out of 254 — that have never sentenced a person to death. But Harris County, with 284 sentenced offenders, has sent more inmates to death row than Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Tarrant and Travis counties combined, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says.
Murder rate droppedAt the time Brooks committed his murder, Texas did not have a law that made accomplices equally liable. Brooks' accomplice, Woody Loudres, served 11 years for his role in the murder of David Gregory before being released on parole in 1989.
Most recently, the debate has focused on whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent to crime, or just retribution.
As Texas' execution chamber became one of the busiest in the nation, the state's murder rate dropped by half. Texas has executed four times as many inmates as any other state.
When Brooks was executed, the Texas murder rate was 16 per 100,000 residents, dropping to about 6 per 100,000 in 2005, the most recent year of statistics available from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
That decline could be because of the fact the Texas economy improved in the 1990s, or because of the fact the number of inmates housed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice almost tripled in the 1990s, growing to more than 146,000 inmates, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But while the murder rate has declined, the number of capital crimes in Texas has actually grown.
In the year Brooks was executed, there were 252 capital murder indictments returned in Texas. There were 489 capital murder indictments returned last year.
And yet few of those capital murder indictments result in a death sentence. Out of 5,025 capital murder indictments in the past decade, 274 resulted in death sentences, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
Steve Hall of the anti-death penalty Stand Down Texas said the statistics show capital punishment does not stop crime in Texas. "I don't think there is any credible evidence that demonstrates a deterrent effect from the death penalty."
Hall said he understands that many Texans care little if capital punishment deters crime.
"Retribution is something a lot of people in Texas support," Hall said.
Life vs. deathDudley Sharp of the pro-death penalty Justice Matters in Houston said murder rates cannot be used to measure the deterrent effect of capital punishment. He said Detroit and Washington, D.C., have high murder rates without capital punishment and so does New Orleans in a state with the death penalty.
Sharp said people are overwhelmingly deterred from crime by the fear of incarceration, but he said criminals fear the death penalty more. He said almost all inmates would choose life in prison over being executed.
"Does the death penalty offer an enhanced deterrent over life without parole?" Sharp said. "It's more of a deterrent than just incarceration."
Study disputes benefitColumbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan did an extensive study of capital murder in Harris County from 1976-2003. Fagan said the capital punishment does little to halt murder.
"We find no evidence of any marginal deterrent effect over and above whatever deterrent effect the criminal system may be creating by incarceration," Fagan said. "We don't see capital punishment adding anything to that effect."
Fagan's study in Harris County found that capital-eligible crimes grew in Houston from 1990 on during the same period that executions were on the rise, but non-capital murders declined.
"A good, efficient criminal legal regime that finds offenders once they commit crimes, calls them to account and punishes them proportionately and appropriately will keep crime rates in check," Fagan said. "You gain nothing by putting execution on top of that."
New York Law School professor and death penalty advocate Robert Blecker said executions are a "marginally effective deterrent." Blecker said the main reason to have the death penalty is to give justice to the murder victims.
"It would be nice if it was a more effective deterrent," Blecker said. "The issue for me is justice."
The Supreme Court is expected to decide the lethal injection issue by next June. At most, the states are expecting to have to do nothing more than change the set of chemicals used in lethal injection before the executions begin again.
For death row inmate Cannon — whose eyes were opened by the Brooks execution — time ran out a decade ago.
Because he was a former drug user, prison officials had trouble finding a vein for the injection. The needle popped out once, spewing fluids onto the gurney before it was reinserted.
Cannon had been 17 when he murdered his lawyer's sister. At age 38, he apologized to her children before he died.
"I am sorry for what I did to your mom. It isn't because I'm going to die. All my life I have been locked up, I could never forgive what I done," Cannon said. "Thank you, God. All right."
Then he was executed.