Killing machine

It is 6:07 p.m. John Albert Burks salutes the Oakland Raiders and says goodbye to his friends. Minutes later, he is a dead man. This year's 21st execution.

Fitzgerald and the TDCJ do their job with some flair, maintaining a macabre Web site ( where any voyeur can read about the condemned prisoners' last meals--there is a preponderance of cheeseburgers-and-fries menus--as well as gory details of his crimes. On the Web page that describes Anthony Graves' crime, for instance, a summary tells how he poured gasoline over his victims before setting them on fire. No mention is made of the confession by Graves' co-defendant, moments before he was himself lethally injected, that he murdered the houseful of people on his own and that Graves had nothing to do with it.

"While it certainly has drawn some attention to us, it has helped me," Fitzgerald says about the bizarrely detailed site. "What drove the site is reporters' questions."

Although national polls have consistently shown a 60 percent or higher approval rating for capital punishment during the last decade, even Texas no longer has the stomach for a spectacle. Public hangings ceased in Texas in 1926, when the state Legislature moved the whole messy affair to Huntsville, no longer leaving this delicate duty in the hands of county governments.

John Albert Burks was the 21st person executed by Texas this year.
John Albert Burks was the 21st person executed by Texas this year.
Geraldo Rivera, seated, interviews convict Gary Graham, whose execution sparked a massive protest.
Geraldo Rivera, seated, interviews convict Gary Graham, whose execution sparked a massive protest.

But now that the Bush factor has reporters crawling all over his agency, Fitzgerald, a wry, understated 63-year-old, describes the atmosphere in spectacle-like terms.

"It is just a goddamn circus here," Fitzgerald says.

John Albert Burks' execution, the 21st this year, however, was carried out far away from the Big Top.

Five hours before he witnessed Burks' execution, when the day was still bright, Fitzgerald's car pulled into the TDCJ's maximum-security Terrell Unit prison parking lot for his usual midweek drill.

For Fitzgerald, Wednesday means men's day. At the Terrell Unit, where the TDCJ houses all male death-row inmates, it's the day each week when the press are allowed to visit from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. with the condemned men whom Fitzgerald and the warden have approved for interviews. (Monday is women's day. At their separate unit in Mountain View, the eight women on death row have their weekly opportunity with the press.)

Located in Livingston, the prison, built in 1993, sits amid the same kind of lush, green, and hilly East Texas terrain that surrounds Gov. Bush's lake house 100 miles to the north in Athens.

Inside, 2,879 prisoners reside. Under guard supervision, they care for livestock, maintain a tree farm, and operate a furniture factory. It costs the state $37 million a year to operate the Terrell Unit. Death-row inmates, who don't participate in activities with the other prisoners and stay in isolated 60-square-foot cells, cost taxpayers $49.54 per day per inmate to house, higher than the system-wide average of $37.03.

A slight breeze blows from nearby Lake Livingston as the TDCJ spokesman stands in the parking lot of the Terrell Unit. The sunny weather has infected people's dispositions. From the watchtower, guards yell greetings to colleagues below.

In the parking lot, Fitzgerald stands in front of a television camera crew. Deborah Wrigley, a reporter from KTRK-Channel 13 in Houston, has her camera trained on the TDCJ spokesman. She's taping a story about the extra security precautions that TDCJ and other law enforcement officials will take for Graham's execution.

Convicted of the robbery and murder of an Arizona salesman visiting in Houston, Graham, like many on death row, denied he committed the crime. On death row since 1981, the 39-year-old former laborer with a ninth-grade education attracted famous supporters in part because of the flimsiness of the case against him. Only one eyewitness--who recently held press conferences to reconfirm her testimony--linked Graham to the crime.

Graham's defiance has also been a draw. The inmate promised to violently fight his execution and called for 10,000 people to gather outside the death chamber to protest. He died handcuffed to his gurney.

In anticipation of a mob scene, Fitzgerald tells the television reporter that the TDCJ has coordinated with state troopers and Huntsville police. But neither Fitzgerald nor his boss, TDCJ public information officer Glen Castlebury, who plan to hold press conferences at 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. the day before and the day of Graham's execution, will offer any more details.

By 1 p.m., an ABC network crew, a cub reporter from the Austin American-Statesman, a correspondent from the Spanish-language television network Telemundo, a veteran from the Plainview Daily Herald, and Argentine journalists have all arrived punctually at the prison gate for their interviews with inmates.

Geraldo Rivera, the famed national television correspondent, is late.

Fitzgerald wants the group to wait a few minutes for Rivera so he can escort everyone to the inmates' interview room.

Today, Graham is by far the most popular inmate. Both Rivera and the ABC team have asked to talk to him. The Telemundo correspondent plans to talk to Victor Hugo Saldano, whose sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court because of the psychologist Quijano's statements.

The Plainview reporter wants to interview Paul Nuncio, a 31-year-old Hispanic security guard scheduled for execution the next day for raping and strangling a 61-year-old Plainview woman.

Jamie Manfuso, an Austin American-Statesman reporter who has been on the job for three weeks, has asked to interview Nuncio and Jessy San Miguel, a 28-year-old Hispanic man, who is scheduled to be executed at the end of the month for the slayings of four people in an Irving Taco Bell nine years ago.

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