Lisa Rodriguez-Presley, left, and Gwendolyn Hogan, both with the Georgia Department of Corrections, announce that Brandon Astor Jones was put to death by lethal injection early Wednesday morning, Feb. 3, 2016, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

For Georgia’s oldest death row inmate, a startling last few minutes

At 12:46 a.m. Wednesday, when death finally came in the form of a needle for 72-year-old Brandon Astor Jones, he fought it.

It took more than an hour to prepare the oldest man on Georgia’s death row for his lethal injection. According to a media witness who monitored the setup, it appeared they had to insert an IV into his groin area, which is protocol if the nurses cannot find accessible veins in the inmate’s arms.

Jones’ eyes closed within a minute of the warden leaving the execution chamber. But 6 minutes later his eyes popped open. He looked at a clock on the wall, and then appeared to look at the man who prosecuted him in 1979, former Cobb County District Attorney Tom Charron, who was sitting on the front row.

When Jones, just 10 days shy of his 73rd birthday, finally took his last breath, it ended a decades-long journey for the daughter and widow of Roger Tackett, the man Jones and his co-defendant murdered in 1979.

The execution had been scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday. Jones, the fifth-oldest inmate executed in the nation, waited in a holding cell a few steps from the death chamber as the appointed time came and went amid a flurry of last-minute court filings for mercy.

About 11 p.m., U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas denied requests for a stay, clearing the way for the execution to proceed.

After Jones died, about 15 supporters and death-penalty opponents, who were gathered about a mile from the execution building, held hands and prayed.

One of them, Carole Butcher, said she had been writing Jones for about 15 years from her home in the United Kingdom. “We had our ups and downs. He supported me through my ups and downs,” Butcher said tearfully.

Death not celebrated

Jones’ execution comes almost 31 years to the day that his co-defendant, Van Roosevelt Solomon, was electrocuted for murdering Tackett, the manager of a Cobb County Tenneco gas station and convenience store.

Tackett’s daughter, Katie Tackett King, and his widow, Christine Bixon, who remarried several years after Tackett’s murder, did not witness the lethal injection. Instead, King, who was 7 when her father was slain, waited at her Cherokee County home with Bixon.

King and Bixon said previously that they did not celebrate Jones’ death, but that it needed to happen for justice to be served.

A message recorded

Tuesday afternoon, three friends and 11 family members visited Jones, as did his lawyer and an investigator.

Jones also ate his final meal — the same dinner served every other inmate at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson: chicken, rutabagas, turnip greens, dry white beans, cornbread, fruit punch and, for dessert, bread pudding.

He declined to make a final statement, although he did record a message several hours before his execution.

The vicious crime

Jones and Solomon murdered Tackett just before 2 a.m. on Father’s Day in 1979. Tackett had closed up the business at midnight but stayed late to finish paperwork so he could go to Mass later that morning with his daughter and wife.

Jones and Solomon were immediately captured because a Cobb County police officer was outside the store, dropping off a stranded motorist who needed to use the pay phone at the Tenneco. Officer Ray Kendall became suspicious when he spotted Tackett’s car parked in front of the store with the driver’s-side door open and a loaf of bread on the front seat, almost two hours after the business was closed.

Kendall said he heard four shots and inside found Jones and Solomon, and then moments later found Tackett lying on the storeroom floor in his own blood. Tackett had two wounds in his hip and a wound in his thumb from one of the two bullets that passed through his head.

Next: More executions

Jones and Solomon were tried separately, and it was Jones’ case that ran into problems. In 1989, four years after Solomon was executed, a federal judge ordered Jones to be resentenced because the jury that had convicted him and voted for death in October 1979 had a Bible in the room during deliberations. In 1997, a second Cobb County jury said Jones should die for Tackett’s murder.

Jones’ lawyers argued in his clemency petition and in various court filings that Jones should be spared because of his age and increasing dementia. They also argued that his crime was not deserving of the death penalty and that the sentencing jury did not hear the details of Jones’ abusive childhood.

Jones’ lawyers also tried to stop the execution by raising issues with the state law that keeps secret the name of the pharmacist who makes the drug (pentobarbital) used in Georgia’s lethal injections. Georgia’s secrecy law, like similar statutes in other states, has repeatedly withstood legal challenges.

In the weeks after Jones’ execution, Georgia’s death machine will keep running. At least four other men have exhausted their regular round of appeals and could see their executions scheduled in the coming weeks or months, and there are others who could be in the same position by the end of this year.

According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, there have been 60 men and one woman executed in the state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973. Jones was the 38th inmate put to death by lethal injection. There are presently 75 men on death row in Georgia.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.