Longform

Killing machine

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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.

"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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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