Longform

Killing machine

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By 1 p.m., an ABC network crew, a cub reporter from the Austin American-Statesman, a correspondent from the Spanish-language television network Telemundo, a veteran from the Plainview Daily Herald, and Argentine journalists have all arrived punctually at the prison gate for their interviews with inmates.

Geraldo Rivera, the famed national television correspondent, is late.

Fitzgerald wants the group to wait a few minutes for Rivera so he can escort everyone to the inmates' interview room.

Today, Graham is by far the most popular inmate. Both Rivera and the ABC team have asked to talk to him. The Telemundo correspondent plans to talk to Victor Hugo Saldano, whose sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court because of the psychologist Quijano's statements.

The Plainview reporter wants to interview Paul Nuncio, a 31-year-old Hispanic security guard scheduled for execution the next day for raping and strangling a 61-year-old Plainview woman.

Jamie Manfuso, an Austin American-Statesman reporter who has been on the job for three weeks, has asked to interview Nuncio and Jessy San Miguel, a 28-year-old Hispanic man, who is scheduled to be executed at the end of the month for the slayings of four people in an Irving Taco Bell nine years ago.

No one interviews Burks today.

Earlier, Burks had told his story to three reporters who bothered to ask--from the Associated Press, The Huntsville Item, and the Waco Tribune-Herald--denying that he murdered the tortilla factory owner. The only witness who claimed to have seen the shooting was a man who faced murder charges in the slaying himself. By comparison, Fitzgerald has turned down dozens of interview requests for Graham. The sought-after death-row inmate was allowed to grant two interviews every Wednesday for the past six weeks.

"Hope was executed around here a long time ago," Burks told Tommy Witherspoon at the Waco daily. Burks' appellate lawyer, Walter Reaves, says his client was resigned to his fate, and Burks made no effort to seek publicity, even though he has also maintained his innocence.

Had the networks wanted to interview Burks on this particular Wednesday, the day of his scheduled death, Fitzgerald would have said no. The warden forbids an inmate from being interviewed on his execution day.

By noon, the warden will halt Burks' visits with friends so a large detail of TDCJ guards can take the condemned man at an undisclosed time and through a secret route to the death chamber in Huntsville, a 45-minute drive away.

As it happened, by the time of Burks' execution at 6 p.m., the network reporters and most of the out-of-town press had left East Texas.

"No one will be here," Fitzgerald says about Burks' execution. He doesn't count the AP, UPI, and Huntsville Item reporters who witness all executions, regardless of newsworthiness.

"Remember, the bad guys always wear white," teases a prison chaplain when asked to identify Fitzgerald in a crowd. A lanky man with a long, lined face, Fitzgerald dresses casually for his job in cowboy boots, khaki pants, and an open-collar white shirt.

During the week, he lives in Huntsville. But he owns a home in Austin, where his wife and daughter live. He drives to the capital city on the weekends when he is not too tired to make the three-hour trip.

A native of Austin and an Army brat who moved often as a child, Fitzgerald started his career as a newsman. He worked at radio stations, first in smaller markets such as Cleburne, and then in Dallas and Fort Worth, including a stint at WBAP-AM. He spent some time in public affairs radio, reporting about such issues as bail-bond reforms. For his reporting, he won American Bar Association awards and eventually the attention of the State Bar of Texas, which hired him in 1978 as its public information officer.

For 12 years until 1990, Fitzgerald served as the main flack for the State Bar. In 1994, Castlebury recruited him for TDCJ. "I never thought I'd work for a prison system," Fitzgerald says. But the economics were alluring: His TDCJ post pays $4,100 a month. "Not enough," he says.

"He wanted an old graybeard," Fitzgerald says about his boss Castlebury. Fitzgerald's appealing, low-key manner and competent management of logistics must have helped. "I wasn't looking for a touchy-feely guy," says Castlebury. "I was looking for a news professional."

All over the country, reporters have come to rely on Fitzgerald for fast and friendly service. He returns calls quickly, supplies information readily, and simplifies bureaucratic hurdles.

On his desk, Fitzgerald has a pair of suspenders sent by TV host Larry King, who, despite the gift, didn't get an interview with Graham. Fitzgerald gives priority to Texas press, and King was just too late, he says with a smile.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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