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.

In 1994 prison public information chief Glen 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 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 issues.

The crowds for Graham's execution contrasted with the silence for Burks's death.
Kess Gilhome
The crowds for Graham's execution contrasted with the silence for Burks's death.

Although barely detectable in Fitzgerald's genial manner, he and his boss seem to share an ever-present sarcasm directed at the national and international press -- particularly the French media, who swoop down for big controversial executions but rarely surface otherwise. "Karla Faye Tucker, her case was heard worldwide. But for the guy we executed the next night who was just as big or bigger a Christian, no one was there. It's ironic," Fitzgerald says.

"We are in a tremendous position to watch herd journalism," says Castlebury. "I guess we're a little like air-traffic controllers. It's going to be a heavy load tonight."

As for his opinion of the death penalty, Fitzgerald balks at giving it. "It's not germane to the story," he says. "I have never commented on how I feel publicly. If I come out and say I am for it and then I have to go every week and work with death row inmates," he says, pausing and letting his listener fill in the blank. "If I say I am against it, I have Justice for All [a victims' rights group] to deal with. Do I have an opinion? Yeah, I have an opinion. But I'm not going to say."

Fitzgerald goes back to the death row unit to prepare inmates for media visits. He has, with the warden's blessing, forbidden some of the condemned who are uncivilized from engaging in the interview process.

"I'm not going to let that guy who cut the preacher up talk to anybody," says Fitzgerald. He refers to a June 9 attack on volunteer minister William Paul Westbrook by Juan Soria. The 33-year-old inmate, scheduled to die this month for the killing of a 17-year-old Arlington boy in 1985, severely cut Westbrook's arm with razor blades.

Fitzgerald recommends certain inmates for interviews. Thomas Miller-El, a 49-year-old inmate who arrived on death row in 1986, is one of Fitzgerald's picks. "I would not say we have a friendship," says Fitzgerald of Miller-El, "but a relationship of a captor-captive type. We joke around with each other, kid back and forth. It's pleasant."

In November 1985, according to TDCJ's own Web site, a Dallas jury convicted Miller-El of murdering a 25-year-old clerk at a suburban Holiday Inn. Miller-El and his wife robbed the clerk, then tied him up in a closet and shot him with a 9mm handgun.

Asked about Miller-El's appeal chances, Fitzgerald shakes his head. "He's been here a long time."

At the inside gate of the Terrell Unit, 12 reporters, photographers and broadcast crew members are lined up with their bulky equipment.

One by one, they pass their driver's licenses through a slot in a window to the female guard inside. In return, they each get a two-inch red plastic visitor tag.

The group is ready to go in, but Fitzgerald wants to wait a little longer for Geraldo Rivera. As the group starts to get restless, one of Rivera's researchers enters the foyer, out of breath. "They are on their way. They are just stuffing cheeseburgers in their mouths."

Fitzgerald is not sympathetic. "Let's go ahead, I'm not going to wait for Geraldo. The hell with it."

Lining the pathway between the prison gatehouse and the main building, rose bushes, marigolds, zinnias and petunias are in spectacular full bloom. "You want to take a little time to smell the flowers," Fitzgerald jokes with ABC correspondent Mike Van Fremd.

As soon as the group arrives in the room set up for inmate interviews, Fitzgerald starts directing reporters to chairs. The interview room is shaped like a T, one long hall and a wider foyer with table, chairs and vending machines. Along both sides of the hall are eight bulletproof and shatterproof windows. Each looks into a cubicle. Each cubicle has a door on the other side that locks, a chair and a telephone. On the other side, prison guards lead the inmates one by one to the assigned cubicles and lock them in. The prisoners and reporters see each other through the windows and talk through telephones.

Each assigned to a window, the ABC, NBC and Telemundo camera crews start setting up their equipment before the inmates arrive. Some two dozen people and all of their equipment are crammed into a space no bigger than a good-size cloakroom. Most whisper.

Van Fremd's voice rises above the others. When Gary Graham, a thin man with a goatee and mustache and large intense eyes that are slightly bloodshot, enters his cubicle, Van Fremd grabs his receiver.

ABC-Monday Night Football, he says, by way of identifying his affiliation. Van Fremd tells Graham that he is going to call him sir. Graham recently had begun asking reporters to refer to him by the African name Shaka Sankofa.

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