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.

No one interviews Burks today.

Earlier, Burks had told his story to three reporters who bothered to ask--from the Associated Press, The Huntsville Item, and the Waco Tribune-Herald--denying that he murdered the tortilla factory owner. The only witness who claimed to have seen the shooting was a man who faced murder charges in the slaying himself. By comparison, Fitzgerald has turned down dozens of interview requests for Graham. The sought-after death-row inmate was allowed to grant two interviews every Wednesday for the past six weeks.

"Hope was executed around here a long time ago," Burks told Tommy Witherspoon at the Waco daily. Burks' appellate lawyer, Walter Reaves, says his client was resigned to his fate, and Burks made no effort to seek publicity, even though he has also maintained his innocence.

Unlike Burks, who died in near obscurity, Gary Grraham attracted a horde of reporters at his execution.
Unlike Burks, who died in near obscurity, Gary Grraham attracted a horde of reporters at his execution.

Had the networks wanted to interview Burks on this particular Wednesday, the day of his scheduled death, Fitzgerald would have said no. The warden forbids an inmate from being interviewed on his execution day.

By noon, the warden will halt Burks' visits with friends so a large detail of TDCJ guards can take the condemned man at an undisclosed time and through a secret route to the death chamber in Huntsville, a 45-minute drive away.

As it happened, by the time of Burks' execution at 6 p.m., the network reporters and most of the out-of-town press had left East Texas.

"No one will be here," Fitzgerald says about Burks' execution. He doesn't count the AP, UPI, and Huntsville Item reporters who witness all executions, regardless of newsworthiness.

"Remember, the bad guys always wear white," teases a prison chaplain when asked to identify Fitzgerald in a crowd. A lanky man with a long, lined face, Fitzgerald dresses casually for his job in cowboy boots, khaki pants, and an open-collar white shirt.

During the week, he lives in Huntsville. But he owns a home in Austin, where his wife and daughter live. He drives to the capital city on the weekends when he is not too tired to make the three-hour trip.

A native of Austin and an Army brat who moved often as a child, Fitzgerald started his career as a newsman. He worked at radio stations, first in smaller markets such as Cleburne, and then in Dallas and Fort Worth, including a stint at WBAP-AM. He spent some time in public affairs radio, reporting about such issues as bail-bond reforms. For his reporting, he won American Bar Association awards and eventually the attention of the State Bar of Texas, which hired him in 1978 as its public information officer.

For 12 years until 1990, Fitzgerald served as the main flack for the State Bar. In 1994, Castlebury recruited him for TDCJ. "I never thought I'd work for a prison system," Fitzgerald says. But the economics were alluring: His TDCJ post pays $4,100 a month. "Not enough," he says.

"He wanted an old graybeard," Fitzgerald says about his boss Castlebury. Fitzgerald's appealing, low-key manner and competent management of logistics must have helped. "I wasn't looking for a touchy-feely guy," says Castlebury. "I was looking for a news professional."

All over the country, reporters have come to rely on Fitzgerald for fast and friendly service. He returns calls quickly, supplies information readily, and simplifies bureaucratic hurdles.

On his desk, Fitzgerald has a pair of suspenders sent by TV host Larry King, who, despite the gift, didn't get an interview with Graham. Fitzgerald gives priority to Texas press, and King was just too late, he says with a smile.

Although barely detectable in Fitzgerald's genial manner, he and his boss seem to share an ever-present sarcasm directed at the national and international--particularly the French--media who swoop down for big, controversial executions but rarely surface otherwise. "Karla Faye Tucker, her case was heard worldwide. But for the guy we executed the next night who was just as big or bigger a Christian, no one was there. It's ironic," Fitzgerald says.

"We are in a tremendous position to watch herd journalism," says Castlebury. "I guess we're a little like air-traffic controllers. It's going to be a heavy load tonight."

Asked about his reactions to executions, Fitzgerald winces but supplies an answer. "It always makes an impression on you," he says. He doesn't know exactly how many executions he's witnessed. "It's just something that I don't like to keep a score on," he says.

As for his opinion of the death penalty, Fitzgerald balks at giving it. "It's not germane to the story," he says. "I have never commented on how I feel publicly. If I come out and say I am for it and then I have to go every week and work with death-row inmates," he says, pausing and letting his listener fill in the blank. "If I say I am against it, I have Justice for All [a victims' rights group] to deal with. Do I have an opinion? Yeah, I have an opinion. But I'm not going to say."

Fitzgerald goes back to the death-row unit to prepare inmates for media visits. He says he wants to make sure they are civil enough to meet with the press. He has, with the warden's blessing, forbidden some of the condemned from engaging in the interview process.

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