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.

"There are so many these days," the owner of the store says. "It's hard to keep track."

By 5:30 p.m. in Fitzgerald's office, the regulars--the reporters whom he'd earlier referred to as "no one"--have already gathered. Fitzgerald guarantees a witness seat at every execution for UPI, AP, and The Huntsville Item. State law allows five reporters to witness any execution. But since Fitzgerald has permanently pledged three seats to the news services and the local paper, only two other slots are available. One goes to the Dallas Observer.

Huntsville Item reporter Lyons and UPI correspondent Wayne Sorge have plopped themselves onto a couch in Fitzgerald's office. Mike Graczyk, the AP reporter, sits off to the side. Graczyk has worked this beat for six years. He has earned the dubious distinction of having witnessed more state-sanctioned executions than any other man in the Western world. He spends much of his time staring at his portable computer.

Tommy Witherspoon from the Waco Tribune-Herald, who covered Burks' trial, is also waiting to attend this, his fourth execution. He comes to the Huntsville events, he says, "just for the hometown boys."

Passing time before execution officials telephone with the green light, Fitzgerald and the familiar gang talk about the commotion surrounding the Graham execution, scheduled eight days away. "It won't be like Karla Faye Tucker," says Fitzgerald, referring to the woman executed in 1998 amid an international outcry. "Then, we started getting calls months in advance from France, Germany, Italy."

So far, the only international press that have shown an interest in Graham are English and German. Not the French, who failed to get a seat at the Tucker execution, something Fitzgerald recalls fondly.

"We are in Texas. That's been our policy: Texas media first," he says with a smile. "Not that I dislike the French. They always waved at me. With only one finger, but they waved. I didn't realize I spoke French until I saw that."

European journalists make no bones about their revulsion for Texas' killing machine. Two years ago, Julia Stuart, a reporter for the London Mail, wrote a scathing column about Fitzgerald and his regular crowd of execution reporters. The story led with an anecdote about how Fitzgerald and the reporters had gobbled down birthday cake--Graczyk's--minutes before an execution.

Lyons concedes there is a tacit understanding not to talk death-penalty politics among the regulars in Huntsville. Asked where she stands, Lyons responds: "None of us says. We can't say."

Fitzgerald speculates that the largest protest may have actually been for a Mexican national whose name none in the office recalls.

"Who was that?" Fitzgerald asks Graczyk, who started on the beat before the TDCJ spokesman got his job. "Remember they shut down all the bridges to Mexico. Goddamn--what was his name?"

"I can't even remember the last one," Sorge, the UPI reporter, says with a laugh.


It's 5:58 p.m. when Fitzgerald's phone rings with the call from the death house.

"Let's go to the party," Graczyk says sarcastically as the group files out.

First they have to cross the street from the TDCJ administration building to the death house, a former prison known as "The Walls." Inside, a guard searches each reporter with a metal detector. The condemned man's and the victim's family and friends arrived earlier and have been kept in separate waiting rooms. Members of the victim's family have spent the day getting counseling from a trained state employee for what they're about to see. "If you have a problem with it, don't do it," Dan Guerra, the assistant director of the victim services division, says he tells victims' survivors.

At this point, the reporters are split up. Some go into the witness rooms with Fitzgerald and the victim's survivors; others will follow Castlebury into the room with the inmates' family.

Fitzgerald warns a reporter not to ask any questions of Jesse Contreras' family.

Fitzgerald and Graczyk do chat among themselves in the hallway. The AP reporter is an encyclopedic resource. Graczyk interviews every condemned man in Texas before his execution, unless the inmate refuses his request.

At 6:01 p.m., before anyone enters the witness rooms, guards are removing Burks from a holding cell and strapping him to a gurney to wheel him to the death chamber.

Once Burks is in place, other guards lead all the witnesses to their designated rooms. Throughout this procedure, the guards keep the inmate's family and the victim's family separated. They never pass in the hall. But to get to their respective witness rooms, they all have to walk through a courtyard.

Again, like the pathway at the Terrell Unit, the space is landscaped with bizarrely cheery flowers. Roses, marigolds, and periwinkles are all blooming. An armed guard looms above.

The death house, Fitzgerald says earlier, is "probably about the most low-maintenance place in the system. Changing sheets. That's about it."

As the guard opens the door to small quarters from which witnesses will view the death chamber through a Plexiglas window, Fitzgerald says in apparent jest, "Do I have to go?"

For the uninitiated, the sight of the occupied death chamber is unsettling. With a warden standing directly behind him, Burks lies on the gurney. His legs, arms, and chest are strapped down. Only his head can move.

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