he state of Texas strapped Charlie Brooks Jr. to a hospital stretcher and took his life early this morning with a lethal dose of three drugs. In doing so, it may have executed a man who did not pull the trigger in the murder for which he was convicted.

At 12:30 a.m. EST, a saline solution began flowing into Brooks' arm through an intravenous catheter and, at 1:09, an unidentified employe of the Texas Department of Corrections pushed the plunger on a syringe to deliver the paralyzing agents that slowed Brooks' muscles and stopped his heart.

As the drugs entered Brooks' veins, a witness reported, he "took a long, deep yawn," then immediately wheezed. " . . . By the time he finished the yawn, he was gone," the witness said. "I don't think he felt it [the lethal injection]."

Pronounced dead by a prison physician at 1:16 a.m., Brooks was the first person executed by injection in this country, and circumstances surrounding the execution touched off an angry debate about use of capital punishment.

Brooks' died only a few hours after the U.S. Supreme Court, with three of the nine justices dissenting, declined to block the execution, the sixth since the high court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976.

The court's action suggested that its previous tolerance for delays in death penalty cases may be exhausted, and its apparent new resolve is crucial to more than 1,000 persons on death rows throughout the country.

Later Monday night, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the state district court in Fort Worth refused to halt the execution. Brooks' lawyers had filed new requests for stays of execution by those courts if the Supreme Court turned down the request.

A final appeal to a U.S. District Court judge in Fort Worth was rejected about 15 minutes before the execution.

Included among witnesses to the execution was Vanessa Sapp, 27, of Fort Worth, Tex., a practical nurse with whom Brooks had corresponded from death row. The two reportedly exchanged "vows" last week, and Brooks told her they would meet "in the hereafter."

Strapped to the stretcher, Brooks looked toward Sapp and said, "I love you," then said several sentences alternately in English and what witnesses described as a foreign tongue. He exchanged words with two Islamic ministers, and his last words, to Sapp, were, "Be strong."

Witnesses said Brooks showed no clear sign of emotion. "When he said his last words, it was as if he was waiting for something to hit him," a witness reported.

Brooks, 40, was the first black executed since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling and was the second of the six to die fighting for his life. The execution was the first since 1964 in Texas, which until 1977 had required that death sentences be carried out by electrocution.

Brooks, who converted to the Islamic religion in prison, told several reporters last week: "I don't want to die. But I will not beg for my life. I would never beg for my life, and I hope my lawyers understand that."

He and another man, Woody Loudres, were convicted in separate trials of the kidnap-murder of David Gregory, a used-car lot mechanic in Fort Worth, Tex., in December, 1976. Both were sentenced to die.

But Loudres' conviction was overturned on appeal because of errors in jury selection. He recently pleaded guilty to the crime and, in a plea bargain, was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in about six years. Neither man admitted pulling the trigger of the gun that killed Gregory.

The execution at the Walls Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections in Huntsville came after a final day of legal maneuvering by lawyers working on Brooks' behalf. They argued in part that the execution should be halted because of the disparity in the sentences given Brooks and Loudres.

Earlier Monday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans refused a motion to stay the execution, the second time it had failed to intervene.

Brooks' lawyers, from the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, also had requested a 60-day reprieve from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board met at noon, deferred action, and later turned down the request by a 2-to-1 vote.

Texas Gov. Bill Clements announced shortly before the Supreme Court ruling that he would not grant Brooks a reprieve.

Brooks was transferred to the Walls Unit from Death Row about 16 miles away early Monday and was kept in a holding cell until his execution. He had two visitors during his final day, his niece and an Islamic minister from Fort Worth.

About 7:30 p.m. EST, Brooks was given his final meal: T-bone steak, french fries, hot rolls, iced tea and peach cobbler. He showered, donned white prison clothes and was moved into the death chamber from the holding room about midnight.

The lethal dosage of drugs included sodium thiopental -- better known as sodium pentothol, or truth serum -- pavulon and potassium chloride. The second drug was a muscle relaxant, while the potassium chloride was the agent that stopped the heart, according to corrections department spokesman Jay Bryd.

Officials said sodium thiopental causes the muscles of the heart and respiration system to still quickly and blood to stop flowing to the brain, which would die within minutes.

According to procedures established by the corrections department, Brooks was taken into the death chamber and strapped to a hospital stretcher. At that point, a medical technician inserted an intravenous catheter into Brooks' arm.

The tube was strung through a wall into a separate room so Brooks could not see his executioner.

Neither the technician nor the person who released the sodium thiopental were physicians, officials said. The American Medical Association opposes participation by doctors in such executions.

During the hours preceeding the execution, representatives of Amnesty International conducted candlelight vigils opposing the execution in Dallas, Austin and Huntsville, and hundreds of students from nearby Sam Houston State University gathered outside the prison.

Demonstrators also gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court building to protest the court's failure to block the execution.

Opponents of the execution contended Monday night that the judicial handling of the execution was outrageous and predicted a "blood bath" of executions in 1983 if other death sentences are handled in a similar fashion.

Henry Schwarzschild, director of the ACLU's Captial Punishment Project, said earlier Monday that the disparity in the sentences for Brooks and Loudres was "a classic law school situation."

"One shot is fired," he said. "The state of Texas does not know who fired the shot. They are equally guilty. But one is coming up for parole in six years and the other will be killed. Is that rational?"

The man who prosecuted the two men intervened on Brooks' behalf last week. Jack V. Strickland, a former Tarrant County, Tex., assistant district attorney, asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Brooks a 60-day reprieve because the courts had not determined who had pulled the trigger.

Others executed since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1977 were Gary Gilmore, by firing squad in Utah in 1977; John Spenkelink, electrocuted in Florida in 1979; Jesse Bishop, in the Nevada gas chamber in 1979; Steven Judy, electrocuted in Indiana in 1981, and Frank Coppola, electrocuted in Virginia last August. Only Spenkelink fought imposition of the sentence.