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.

As a freelance photographer snaps shots of Graham, the inmate puts his hand against the glass so the image the camera captures has a forlorn look. For an AP photographer, Graham will stand in the back of his chamber, fist raised in defiance. That's the photo that will appear in The Dallas Morning News, a daily Fitzgerald says rarely sends a reporter down for the executions but has run stories about Graham now that he is national news.

"It's a lot more intense now," Graham says about the attention he is getting these days. "The media is beginning to examine the whole system."

He doesn't mind all the questions, even if they invade his privacy. At this late date, what's the value of privacy, anyway?

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."

"It's beyond that now," he says.

Under more severe supervision because of his pledge to "fight like hell," Graham no longer has access to newspapers or television broadcasts. He will never see any of the stories written about him as the moments tick down to his date with the executioner.

After checking with his camera man about whether he looks better with his jacket open or closed and warning the operator "try not to be too tight on me," Van Fremd tells Graham, "Stories like this are tough for me. As I understand it, it is not looking very good for you. I want you to say what you think of the system."

Van Fremd then proceeds to ask Graham what Huntsville Item staff writer Michelle Lyons later refers to as "television questions."

"How are you holding up? Is this any kind of life worth living?" Van Fremd asks.

The correspondent, whose Graham interview later airs on ABC newscasts and Good Morning America, steers the inmate toward politics. "This may be your last chance to speak out. What do you, as one man to another, want to say to the governor?"

Having matched everyone up, Fitzgerald usually sits back and watches, but today he has to fetch Rivera and his crew. They have finished their cheeseburgers.

In a black suit jacket, black shirt, and black pants, Rivera slips into the chair in front of the cubicle where inmate Anthony Graves awaits. Rivera will talk to Graves first before moving on to Graham. Now 34, Graves was convicted in a mass murder of six people in Somerville in 1992. "Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court," Robert Earl Carter, whose previous testimony had put Graves on death row, confessed in late May, moments before his own death by lethal injection.

Known for his pugnacious manner on television, Rivera redeems himself in person. He makes no lengthy introductions. He talks quietly and uses no notes. "You help kill those people?" he asks Graves. "Do you have nightmares about it?"

"Hey, God, I hate to ask this," Fitzgerald, looking at his shoes, tells Rivera's producer after the correspondent finishes his interview with Graham. "I've got a secretary in the warden's office who wants to meet Geraldo."

"Not a problem, not a problem," the producer replies.

"I'm so glad I brought my get-out-of-jail pass," Rivera jokes a few minutes later with the woman and her colleagues.

Ready to head to Houston, Rivera trots to the Terrell Unit gate and sees that a Texas downpour has begun. "I have air time at 6:30. I can't go into that," he says, panicking.

The Terrell Unit assistant warden tells a prison trusty, "Go out there and get the car for them."

"We wouldn't want all that hair spray to run off onto our parking lot," Castlebury says later.

Fitzgerald has to leave the Terrell Unit promptly at 3 p.m. to make sure he returns to Huntsville in time for Burks' execution.

Calling ahead to the office, he learns that Burks' date is set in stone.

Two days before Burks' execution, Waco Judge Walter Smith ordered the state to postpone the lethal injection because he said a reprieve he'd issued two years earlier was still in effect. Within a day, however, the attorney general's office had successfully appealed the judge's stay to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Burks' last hope was the U.S. Supreme Court. Burks had exercised the right of every death-row inmate to have all of the justices in Washington review his case.

Justice Antonin Scalia, a hard-liner on criminal defense issues, is responsible for presenting death-row cases that come from Texas to the others on the bench. But the highest court in the land that morning had denied his petition.

Fitzgerald returns to his office in Huntsville to prepare for Burks' death. Across the street from the TDCJ administration building where Fitzgerald works and only a block from the death chamber, a defunct Dairy Queen has its windows shuttered. The optimistic sign in front says "Closed 4 Winter."

The nation's technology boom has not hit Huntsville, where the prison system is still the primary employer. The town has a population of 35,000; 13,000 inmates live in the seven surrounding prisons, and 7,000 TDCJ employees work to keep them incarcerated.

At 5 p.m., one hour before Burks is scheduled to die, downtown Huntsville is business as usual. At King's Candies shop on the town square, senior citizens merrily devour ice cream sundaes. None has any idea that John Albert Burks' execution is scheduled for that evening.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest