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.

"I'm not going to let that guy who cut the preacher up talk to anybody," says Fitzgerald, referring to a June 9 attack on volunteer minister William Paul Westbrook by Juan Soria, a 33-year-old inmate scheduled to die next month for the killing of a 17-year-old Arlington boy in 1985. "The inmate pulled the chaplain's arm into the cell and tied a sheet around the arm, and pulled the arm into the cell up to the elbow," Fitzgerald told Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk. "Then he took out two razor blades and started cutting."

Westbrook nearly lost his arm.

Fitzgerald has also barred Howard Guidry from talking to the press. Guidry, along with fellow death-row inmate Ponchai Wilkerson, armed himself with metal rods last February and took a guard hostage for 13 hours. The two demanded a moratorium on executions.

Larry Fitzgerald, the 63-year-old Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman at state executions, says that "it is just a goddamn circus around here."
Larry Fitzgerald, the 63-year-old Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman at state executions, says that "it is just a goddamn circus around here."

They let the hostage go when the warden agreed to grant them a meeting with death-row opponents.

A month later, as he was strapped to the death-chamber gurney, Wilkerson got in one last act of defiance. With his death moments away, Wilkerson spat out a handcuff key. Authorities have never figured out how he got his hands on it.

Fitzgerald also has inmates whom he recommends for interviews. Thomas Miller-El, a 49-year-old inmate who arrived on death row in 1986, is one of Fitzgerald's picks. "I would not say we have a friendship," says Fitzgerald of Miller-El, "but a relationship of a captor-captive-type. We joke around with each other, kid back and forth. It's pleasant. I don't know about his crime. I know he committed it in Dallas. It's all I know."

In November 1985, according to TDCJ's own Web site, a Dallas jury convicted Miller-El of murdering a 25-year-old clerk at the Holiday Inn South in Irving. Miller-El and his wife robbed the clerk, then tied him up in a closet and used a 9mm automatic handgun to shoot him.

Asked about Miller-El's appeal chances, Fitzgerald shakes his head. "He's been here a long time."

At the inside gate of the Terrell Unit, 12 reporters, photographers, and broadcast crew members are lined up with their bulky equipment.

One by one, they pass their driver's licenses through a slot in a window to the female guard inside. In return, they each get a two-inch red plastic visitor tag.

The group is ready to go in, but Fitzgerald wants to wait a little longer for Geraldo Rivera. As the group starts to get restless, one of Rivera's researchers enters the foyer, out of breath. "They are on their way. They are just stuffing cheeseburgers in their mouths."

Fitzgerald is not sympathetic. "Let's go ahead, I'm not going to wait for Geraldo. The hell with it."

Lining the pathway between the prison gatehouse and main building, rose bushes, marigolds, zinnias, and petunias are in spectacular full bloom. "You want to take a little time to smell the flowers," Fitzgerald jokes with ABC correspondent Mike Van Fremd.

As soon as the group arrives in the room set up for inmate interviews, Fitzgerald starts directing reporters to chairs. The interview room is T-shaped, one long hall and a wider foyer with table, chairs, and vending machines. Along both sides of the hall are eight bulletproof and shatterproof windows. Each looks into a cubicle. The cubicles have doors on the other side that lock, a chair, and a telephone. On the other side, prison guards lead the inmates one by one to the assigned cubicles and lock them in. The prisoners and reporters see each other through the windows and talk through telephones.

Each assigned to a window, the ABC, NBC, and Telemundo camera crews start setting up their equipment even though the inmates have not yet arrived. Some two dozen people and all of their equipment are crammed into a space no bigger than a good-sized cloak room. Most whisper.

Van Fremd's voice rises above the others. When Gary Graham, a thin man with a goatee and mustache and large, intense eyes that are slightly bloodshot, enters his cubicle, Van Fremd grabs his receiver.

ABC--Monday Night Football--he says, by way of identifying his affiliation. Van Fremd tells Graham that he is going to call him "Sir." Graham recently had begun asking reporters to refer to him by the African name Shaka Sankofa.

Having made his introduction, the ABC correspondent moves from the window while his crew keeps tinkering with their equipment. Earlier, Fitzgerald says, he told ABC and the Rivera team that they each have about 40 minutes with Graham. Reporters have been known to ignore the time limits. "I've had to ask people to leave," he says. "I tell them, 'It's three o'clock. It's over.' I've told the correction officer to take the inmate out of his cell. So the reporter sits there looking at a blank window."

Many news organizations didn't realize that the interview that Wednesday would be Graham's last because of the controversy surrounding his case. Castlebury later concedes that they received angry calls from media who missed out on their opportunity.

Right now, with Rivera apparently still eating, inmates outnumber the interviewers. Paul Nuncio, who is scheduled to be executed the next day, is staring at an empty chair.

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