Death Row Show

The media makes causes of more and more capital murder convicts. Meanwhile, John Albert Burks dies almost unnoticed, just another inmate moving along on the efficient execution assembly line of Texas justice.

Clouds hover, but rain has not yet begun to fall on a recent Wednesday. It is 6:18 p.m., and Larry Fitzgerald has just finished the job he has done more than a hundred times before: witnessing a Texas inmate being put to death.

This time, it is a 44-year-old man named John Albert Burks.

During a six-minute stroll from the execution chamber to his office in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice administrative building in downtown Huntsville, Fitzgerald keeps quiet, his head bowed.

None of the noisy throngs of protesters who will be present the next week for the controversial execution of Houston criminal Gary Graham line the streets this night. Only an eerie calm greets Fitzgerald.

Convicted more than a decade ago of shooting Jesse Contreras, a Waco tortilla factory owner, during a botched robbery attempt, Burks has died in obscurity. No Bianca Jagger, no Jesse Jackson, no Danny Glover -- all of whom lobbied for Graham -- has voiced objections about Burks's fate.

"Aw, you're just going to see somebody going to sleep," Fitzgerald, the state's spokesman for death row, had told a reporter -- an anxious newcomer to the execution process -- 20 minutes earlier.

At 6:24 p.m., 13 minutes after the executioner had injected a lethal cocktail of sedatives, muscle relaxants and heart-stopping potassium chloride into intravenous tubes inserted in Burks's arms, Fitzgerald finally speaks. He doesn't sound as cavalier as he had before Burks's death.

"With an execution, everyone is a victim," he says quietly. "I never believed that crap about closure."


The moment stands out as an uncharacteristically dour one for Fitzgerald, who is professionally responsible for putting the best face on Texas's death row. His job has become a lot tougher lately.

The worldwide press has focused, often with horror, on the rapid-fire execution machinery that has operated under presidential candidate George W. Bush's tenure as Texas governor.

The numbers alone have stirred some of the attention: 133 prisoners have been executed since Bush became governor; 14 more are scheduled to die before Election Day in November. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 222 men and women and has distinguished itself far and away as the most prolific and resolute among the states that allow capital punishment. Virginia, the closest rival, has killed 76. Awaiting execution on Texas's death row are 455 inmates, 180 of them black men; another 104 are Hispanic males.

The national media's interest intensified after Bush issued in early June an unprecedented 30-day stay for Ricky Nolen McGinn, a death row inmate who had been scheduled to die for the 1993 rape and murder of his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The governor agreed that additional DNA testing could possibly prove that McGinn didn't rape the child.

One day before Burks's execution, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee called upon a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge to defend at a public hearing the state's high rate of death row convictions. A day earlier, newspapers around the country had run front-page stories about a Columbia University study that claimed to have found serious errors in 68 percent of the murder trials nationwide that ended in a death sentence between 1973 and 1995.

This winter, Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, declared a moratorium on executions in his state after 13 condemned men were freed based on new evidence. In Texas, Bush ally state Senator David Sibley of Waco helped draft legislation to allow for DNA testing of inmates before executions. And state Attorney General John Cornyn ordered a review of six Texas death row cases, specifically ones for which Walter Quijano, a psychologist, had testified. The attorney general's move followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision to send back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals the case of death row inmate Victor Hugo Saldano, specifically because Quijano had told jurors that the defendant represented greater danger to his community because of his Hispanic background.

Other than his 30-day reprieve for McGinn, however, Bush has shown no inclination to halt Texas's fast-moving execution machinery. "I'm absolutely confident that everybody who has been put to death has two things: One, they were guilty of the crime charged, and secondly, they had full access to our courts, both state and federal," he told a debate audience in March.

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's death row, smelling blood: a big story.

Managing publicity for a modern-day death row is Larry Fitzgerald's ticklish task. "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 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 -- as well as gory details of their crimes. "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."

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