In last-minute court filings, Brown's lawyers tried to make the case that lethal injection can result in a painful death if the victim is not properly anesthetized.
The debate, which raged for more than two weeks in federal courts, obscured the fact that Brown, 61, was a man, not an experiment, said two of Brown's family members.
"He was a person," Brown's niece, Jamie Brown, an N.C. Central University student, said at a press conference following the execution. "He wasn't any monster that the news media or anybody made him out to be. I will miss him."
"It's a new machine they're trying out. He feels like he's been an experiment," said James Brown, Willie's brother, who was among about two dozen family members who came to visit Brown during his final hours of life.
James Brown's point was substantiated by this post-execution headline from WRAL.com: "Medical Device Makes Debut At N.C. Execution."
Brown, who was the 42nd person executed in the state since executions resumed in 1984, was sentenced to die for the 1983 murder of Williamston convenience store clerk Valerie Ann Roberson Dixon during a robbery. Late Thursday, Gov. Mike Easley denied a clemency request from Brown.
A federal judge asked for assurances from Central Prison officials that Brown would not suffer during the execution. To comply, Central Prison purchased a bispectral index monitor for $5,400, a brain monitor that determined if Brown was unconscious during the execution. Central Prison's "execution team" included a physician and a nurse who operated the machine. The identities of the doctor and nurse, as well as the volunteer executioners, are kept secret.
The debate over the whether Brown would suffer pain during lethal injection was covered by The New York Times. Reuters also had a reporter at the prison to cover Brown's execution.
A study released last week by Human Rights Watch reported more than a dozen executions in which inmates appeared to have suffered during lethal injection. Two North Carolina executions were among those cited in the report.
The Human Rights Watch report, titled "So Long as They Die," included interviews with prison officials in several states who said no medical professionals were involved in the development of lethal injection procedures and prison personnel were not always properly trained to administer the lethal drugs.
For the fourth consecutive time, beginning with the Dec. 2, 2005, execution of Kenneth Lee Boyd, anti-capital punishment activists were arrested in front of Central Prison prior to an execution. The eight arrested last Thursday night were charged with trespass. Six of those arrested, who also had been arrested at previous executions, were held under $3,000 secured bonds. The other two defendants were cited and released early Friday morning without bond. Four posted bond. Two men, Duke Divinity students Matthew Gates and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, were held overnight in the Wake County Jail. They were released Friday afternoon on their own recognizance. Gates and Wilson-Hartgrove are among 10 activists who are scheduled for a June 19 trial in Wake County District Court stemming from the prison arrests.
The Rev. Scott Bass of Raleigh officiated at a prayer service for Brown and his family as well as Dixon's family on Thursday night at N.C. State's Doggett Catholic Student Center. Following the service, mourners walked to the prison carrying candles.
After the execution, Valerie Dixon's husband, William Dixon, who witnessed Brown's execution, released a statement thanking the state for carrying out the execution, and saying he felt sorry for Brown's family.
"For years, I was thinking that he was going free again to do bad things to other people," Dixon wrote.
Jamie Brown, Brown's niece, spoke after the execution, saying her uncle was innocent of killing Dixon. Willie Brown also went to his death claiming innocence. He released no final statement.
"I want everyone to know that tonight is a sad night and my Uncle Willie Junior will be someone that will be missed greatly," Jamie Brown said. "My Uncle Willie is somebody that's an innocent person that's been executed today."
Brown's funeral was held Sunday at the United Holiness Church of Christ in Williamston, said Brown's sister, Teresa Brown, who also witnessed the execution. "It was devastating," she said. "I'm having flashbacks [of the execution] I can't get past that."