1983: Jimmy Lee Gray, drunk-gassed

Just after midnight on this date in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray gruesomely paid with his life in the Mississippi gas chamber for raping and murdering a three-year-old.

Mississippi’s gas chamber had had a checkered history since its first usage in 1955, and with America just emerging from a long lull in executions, Jimmy Lee Gray was its first client in 19 years.

“Sumbitch took a little three-year-old girl out into the bush and he raped her,” executioner T. Barry Bruce would later explain of the man’s crime. “Then he tried to shove her panties down her throat with a stick, then he pushed her head into a little crick full of running shit and then he broke her neck. So yeah, I feel real sorry for Jimmy Lee.”

Gray was on parole at the time for the 1968 murder of his teenage sweetheart, so no — nobody felt all that sorry for Jimmy Lee, not even his mom.

But the reason that questions about the affair were being directed at the executioner (usually a party as silent in these matters as he is implacable) was that Jimmy Lee Gray’s had been drunk on the job — and the execution was a notorious horrorshow.

“Gasping” or “moaning” a recorded eleven times, Gray convulsed wildly in the Parchman death chair, slamming his unrestrained head “with enough force to shake the chamber” against a metal pole that some user interface genius had positioned right behind the death chair. The witness room was cleared eight minutes into the affair, with Gray still thrashing about.

Though the Magnolia State contended that Gray was clinically dead within two minutes, that head-smashing act disturbed everyone.

As a result, for the third time in a half-century, Mississippi switched to a newer and supposedly more humane method for killing people — adopting lethal injection for anyone sentenced to death after July 1, 1984. (Three more prisoners already condemned under the old sentencing guidelines would die in the gas chamber in the late eighties, however.)

Actual executions in the U.S. were still novel enough in the early 1980s that Gray’s made national news — albeit distinctly second fiddle to the tense Cold War escalation occasioned by the September 1 Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007.