Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it.

The first time I met Dick J. Reavis I mistook him for a homeless man. It was November 2015 and I’d recently become editor in chief of the Texas Observer, which then had its offices in a shambolic building in downtown Austin with an unlocked front door that opened onto Seventh Street, allowing anyone to wander in off the street. So when a scruffy-looking man in grubby clothes presented himself in the newsroom one day, I figured he was someone in need of a bathroom or money. “I’m Dick Reavis,” the man said. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Reavis, now 77, is a master of blending in, a famously crusty practitioner of immersion reporting—the somewhat controversial art of directly experiencing the lives of your subjects, rather than just observing from a distance. He’d taken the Greyhound down from Dallas, where he lives, to discuss an article about the challenges of growing old in prison. Later, for the Observer, he would spend six weeks undercover in a Dallas homeless encampment called Tent City as authorities prepared to evict its tenants. He blended in just fine. 

In the decades prior, Reavis had made a name for himself as a chronicler of marginal Americans, of hard-to-penetrate subcultures. For Texas Monthly, he bought a Harley and embedded with the Bandidos motorcycle gang, producing “Never Love a Bandido” in 1979. For “Town Without Pity,” he hung out with the sex workers and johns in Nuevo Laredo’s now long-gone Boys’ Town. And in 1982, he witnessed the execution of Charlie Brooks Jr., a forty-year-old Black man. It was the first time Texas had administered the death penalty since 1964. The resulting story, “Charlie Brooks’ Last Words,” is a disconcerting, unflinching profile of a man’s life and death, and a close-up look at the ugly machinery of Texas’s death penalty policy at an inflection point. Brooks’s execution represented the first time any government in the world had used lethal injection as a method of capital punishment. 

Reavis’s story is suffused with moral ambivalence. Along with another man, Woodie Loudres, Brooks had been sentenced to die in conjunction with the murder of David Gregory, a Fort Worth auto repairman. But neither Brooks nor Loudres would say who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Gregory, and Loudres later had his conviction overturned on appeal. But in a death row interview, Reavis seems to come close to getting Brooks to admit to being the triggerman. Reavis is gimlet-eyed about his subject, writing that “Charlie’s past was proof that there is nothing exotic or even exciting about crime or criminals,” but he also finds that prison had transformed Brooks from a “pool hall rooster” to a “meek and friendly” middle-aged man with “the movements of a dog that is used to being whipped.” The blithe cruelty of the state’s death row system doesn’t go unnoticed either, nor does the fear on Brooks’s face as he waits for the IV to deliver his chemical death while Reavis and others look on. 

After the article was published, Reavis accepted the praise from death penalty opponents who saw in him a fellow traveler. But in fact, Reavis hadn’t made up his mind about the issue, then or now. “I did not write [“Charlie Brooks’ Last Words”] with any polemic in mind,” he said. “I wanted to write the story of what a man goes through. A particular man. Charlie Brooks. And, how do you say . . . his demise.”