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.

Burks knew the system wasn't going to help him, Reaves says, based on what he saw happening to his fellow death-row inmates. "He was sophisticated enough to know everyone else on death row was losing," Reaves says.

For Ralph Strothers, who prosecuted Burks and now sits as a state judge in Waco, the case yielded his first capital murder conviction. He is untroubled by the issues Reaves identifies. "I'll always maintain the right guy got put to death," he says. "I'm not going to try to second-guess it at this point."

Specifically, Strothers says he did disclose to the defense lawyers the nurses' comments about the Hispanic accent. Moreover, he believes Burks, who had made a second home and started a second family in Harlingen, could have adopted a Hispanic accent for the robbery.

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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."

Strothers also contends that Burks' cousin Bilton, who died in 1997, had plenty of opportunity to recant his testimony if he really thought Burks didn't murder Contreras.

But Nancy Cobb, Burks' sister, recalls that her cousin had told her from the get-go that he was pressured into his testimony by Strothers. "He said, 'They were going to nail his balls to the wall,'" she recalls. "Everyone knew it was all lies anyway."

Strothers says he had seriously considered attending Burks' execution, after one of Contreras' family members requested his presence. In the end, however, he stayed home. "It's not that I don't have the stomach for it," he says. "I don't mind shooting my dog. But now I am a sitting judge, and it would look funny if I went to executions."


At 6:09 p.m., after Burks had uttered his last words, the executioner began injecting what the TDCJ Web site says are $86.08 worth of drugs--the same drugs doctors sometimes use to save patients. At 6:11 p.m., the executioner signals to other officials that he had administered the lethal dose.

In the tight quarters of the witness room, where five of Contreras' family members, two reporters, Fitzgerald, and two other TDCJ officials had squeezed into a space of about 4 feet by 10 feet, Burks' heavy last breaths were picked up by the mike and readily audible to the witnesses. His eyes closed.

Coming from an air vent, a cry pierced the air. "Oh no, Lord have mercy," the voice called. It was Burks' sister Cobb, in the other witness room, separated by one wall.

Lyons, who was watching in Cobb's room, said the sister pounded at the wall and muttered something like "Get me out of here." The guards ushered her out.

Fitzgerald was among the most restless in the Contreras family's room. One of the man's daughters dabbed her eyes. But Fitzgerald paced in the corner the whole time, constantly glancing at his watch.

"When's the doctor coming?" he whispered to a guard. He sighed and shook out his legs as though they had knots in them.

The doctor, a bearded man in a blue suit and glasses, whom Fitzgerald would not identify, finally entered at 6:15 p.m. For three long minutes, he examined the patient's chest and face. Then a voice pronounced Burks dead.

The guard standing beside Fitzgerald immediately knocked on the door, and someone outside opened it.

When Fitzgerald and the reporters re-assembled in his office, Graczyk, the AP reporter, started typing his account. Fitzgerald grabbed a stack of phone message slips and began dialing.

For the reporters, one more event that evening needed to be recorded. The victim's family had prepared a statement, which Fitzgerald said they would read shortly.

Castlebury popped his head in the office to offer another detail for the newspapers. Burks' body would be cremated, and a Swedish woman, the Sonya he mentioned in his last words, would take the remains back to Europe. The two of them had been writing each other.

Many of the bodies of executed men, Fitzgerald says, are never claimed. They are buried in a cemetery, maintained by supervised inmates, a mile and a half from the Walls Unit.

Soon, Fitzgerald's assistant distributed a fill-in-the-blanks form to the reporters. It is the official account of the execution. The one-page sheet gives the precise time when guards took Burks from the holding cell and strapped him to the gurney, when the executioner injected the saline solution, when Burks started his final statement, when the executioner injected the lethal dose, and when the doctor pronounced Burks dead.

The form also has spaces for what are categorized as unusual occurrences. For Burks' execution, those were left blank.

Fitzgerald's office puts together a complete press package for each execution. The white folders include a page titled "Deathwatch" that lists Burks' activities for the past three days, including his hefty last meal: fried chicken, a pound of bacon, a 16-ounce T-bone steak (well done), Big Red soda, and coffee. TDCJ rules forbid gum, alcohol, and tobacco. His prison record and a summary of the crime for which he was condemned are also included.

The summary does not include information about Aaron Bilton, the cousin and co-defendant who went free after sending Burks to his death. "A third suspect was named in the case," the release reads, "but it is unknown whether charges were pursued."

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