Killing machine

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With his swagger about death-row convictions, the presumed Republican nominee has set himself up to be proved wrong. National and international reporters have descended on Texas' death row, smelling blood: a big story.

Managing publicity for a modern-day death row is Larry Fitzgerald's ticklish task. Fitzgerald and his TDCJ colleagues cannot appear secretive. "We have nothing to hide," he says. "Make no mistake about it. All we are doing is carrying out the court's orders."

Fitzgerald and the TDCJ do their job with some flair, maintaining a macabre Web site (www.tdcj.state.tx.us/statistics/stats-home.htm) where any voyeur can read about the condemned prisoners' last meals--there is a preponderance of cheeseburgers-and-fries menus--as well as gory details of his crimes. On the Web page that describes Anthony Graves' crime, for instance, a summary tells how he poured gasoline over his victims before setting them on fire. No mention is made of the confession by Graves' co-defendant, moments before he was himself lethally injected, that he murdered the houseful of people on his own and that Graves had nothing to do with it.

"While it certainly has drawn some attention to us, it has helped me," Fitzgerald says about the bizarrely detailed site. "What drove the site is reporters' questions."

Although national polls have consistently shown a 60 percent or higher approval rating for capital punishment during the last decade, even Texas no longer has the stomach for a spectacle. Public hangings ceased in Texas in 1926, when the state Legislature moved the whole messy affair to Huntsville, no longer leaving this delicate duty in the hands of county governments.

But now that the Bush factor has reporters crawling all over his agency, Fitzgerald, a wry, understated 63-year-old, describes the atmosphere in spectacle-like terms.

"It is just a goddamn circus here," Fitzgerald says.

John Albert Burks' execution, the 21st this year, however, was carried out far away from the Big Top.

Five hours before he witnessed Burks' execution, when the day was still bright, Fitzgerald's car pulled into the TDCJ's maximum-security Terrell Unit prison parking lot for his usual midweek drill.

For Fitzgerald, Wednesday means men's day. At the Terrell Unit, where the TDCJ houses all male death-row inmates, it's the day each week when the press are allowed to visit from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. with the condemned men whom Fitzgerald and the warden have approved for interviews. (Monday is women's day. At their separate unit in Mountain View, the eight women on death row have their weekly opportunity with the press.)

Located in Livingston, the prison, built in 1993, sits amid the same kind of lush, green, and hilly East Texas terrain that surrounds Gov. Bush's lake house 100 miles to the north in Athens.

Inside, 2,879 prisoners reside. Under guard supervision, they care for livestock, maintain a tree farm, and operate a furniture factory. It costs the state $37 million a year to operate the Terrell Unit. Death-row inmates, who don't participate in activities with the other prisoners and stay in isolated 60-square-foot cells, cost taxpayers $49.54 per day per inmate to house, higher than the system-wide average of $37.03.

A slight breeze blows from nearby Lake Livingston as the TDCJ spokesman stands in the parking lot of the Terrell Unit. The sunny weather has infected people's dispositions. From the watchtower, guards yell greetings to colleagues below.

In the parking lot, Fitzgerald stands in front of a television camera crew. Deborah Wrigley, a reporter from KTRK-Channel 13 in Houston, has her camera trained on the TDCJ spokesman. She's taping a story about the extra security precautions that TDCJ and other law enforcement officials will take for Graham's execution.

Convicted of the robbery and murder of an Arizona salesman visiting in Houston, Graham, like many on death row, denied he committed the crime. On death row since 1981, the 39-year-old former laborer with a ninth-grade education attracted famous supporters in part because of the flimsiness of the case against him. Only one eyewitness--who recently held press conferences to reconfirm her testimony--linked Graham to the crime.

Graham's defiance has also been a draw. The inmate promised to violently fight his execution and called for 10,000 people to gather outside the death chamber to protest. He died handcuffed to his gurney.

In anticipation of a mob scene, Fitzgerald tells the television reporter that the TDCJ has coordinated with state troopers and Huntsville police. But neither Fitzgerald nor his boss, TDCJ public information officer Glen Castlebury, who plan to hold press conferences at 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. the day before and the day of Graham's execution, will offer any more details.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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