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Killing machine

Page 7 of 10

"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.

Burks, who told his lawyer and reporters that he cannot read and can only copy what others wrote, has a youthful, open face for a 44-year-old man. He looks surprisingly calm. From the ceiling, fluorescent lights cast a glare. A microphone hangs with its business side inches away from Burks' mouth. Allowed to choose his clothes from a selection of street apparel available at TDCJ, Burks is wearing brown pants, a T-shirt, and sneakers with dark blue laces. Non-toxic saline solution, used to keep the poisons from crystallizing in his veins, has already started flowing into the intravenous tubes.

At 6:07 p.m., Burks, with only a slight quaver in his voice, begins to give his last statement. He talks fast. "Hey, how y'all doing. All right. It's going to be all right. There are some guys I didn't get a chance to visit with, ah, I met when I first drove up here, Lester Byers, Chris Black, Alba and Rosales Rocky. You know who you are. The Raiders are going all the way, y'all. Y'all pray for me. And it's going to be all right. That's it, and it's time to roll up and out of here. It's going down. Let's get it over with. That's it."

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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