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.

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

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

John Albert Burks's execution, the 21st this year, however, was carried out far away from the big top.

Burks, a two-time ex-con, killed a tortilla factory owner in a robbery attempt.
Burks, a two-time ex-con, killed a tortilla factory owner in a robbery attempt.
Media circus: Geraldo Rivera talks to Gary Graham (left) as the cameras roll.
AP/Wide World
Media circus: Geraldo Rivera talks to Gary Graham (left) as the cameras roll.

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

For Fitzgerald, Wednesday means men's day. At the Terrell Unit, where TDCJ houses all male death row inmates, it's the day each week when members of 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 Governor Bush's lake house 100 miles to the north in Athens.

Inside, 2,879 prisoners reside. Death row inmates don't participate in activities with the other prisoners and stay in isolated 60-square-foot cells. It costs taxpayers $49.54 per day to house each one, higher than the system-wide average of $37.03.

A slight breeze blows from nearby Lake Livingston. 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, is 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 attracted famous supporters in part because of the flimsiness of the case against him. Only one eyewitness -- she recently held press conferences to reconfirm her testimony -- linked Graham to the crime. The inmate would go on to die handcuffed to his gurney.

By 1 p.m. on this day, 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 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 June for the slayings of four people in an Irving Taco Bell nine years ago.

No one interviews Burks today.

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

By noon, the warden will halt Burks's 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's 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's 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.

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