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.

Having made his introduction, the ABC correspondent moves from the window while his crew keeps tinkering with their equipment. Earlier, Fitzgerald says, he told ABC and the Rivera team that they each have about 40 minutes with Graham. Reporters have been known to ignore the time limits. "I've had to ask people to leave," he says. "I tell them, 'It's three o'clock. It's over.' I've told the correction officer to take the inmate out of his cell. So the reporter sits there looking at a blank window."

Right now, with Rivera apparently still eating, inmates outnumber the interviewers. Paul Nuncio, who is scheduled to be executed the next day, is staring at an empty chair.

As a freelance photographer snaps shots of Graham, the inmate puts his hand against the glass so the image the camera captures has a forlorn look. For an AP photographer, Graham will stand in the back of his chamber, fist raised in defiance. That's the photo that will appear in The Dallas Morning News.

Larry Fitzgerald says everyone's a victim with executions: "I never believed that crap about closure."
AP/Wide World Photo
Larry Fitzgerald says everyone's a victim with executions: "I never believed that crap about closure."

"It's a lot more intense now," Graham says about the attention he is getting. "The media is beginning to examine the whole system."

He doesn't mind all the questions, even if they invade his privacy. At this late date, what's the value of privacy, anyway?

"It's beyond that now," he says.

After checking with his cameraman about whether he looks better with his jacket open or closed and warning the operator, "Try not to be too tight on me," Van Fremd says to Graham, "Stories like this are tough for me. As I understand it, it is not looking very good for you. I want you to say what you think of the system."

Van Fremd then proceeds to ask Graham what Huntsville Item staff writer Michelle Lyons later refers to as "television questions."

"How are you holding up? Is this any kind of life worth living?" Van Fremd asks.

Having matched everyone up, Fitzgerald usually sits back and watches, but today he has to fetch Rivera and his crew. They have finished their cheeseburgers.

In a black suit jacket, black shirt and black pants, Rivera slips into the chair in front of the cubicle where inmate Anthony Graves awaits. Now 34, Graves was convicted in a mass murder of six people in Somerville in 1992. "Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court," Robert Earl Carter, whose previous testimony had put Graves on death row, confessed in late May, moments before his own death by lethal injection.

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 next 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 airtime at six-thirty. 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's execution.

Calling ahead to the office, he learns that Burks's date is set in stone.

Two days before Burks's 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 Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Burks's 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 Anthony 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.

To prepare for Burks's death, Fitzgerald returns to his office in Huntsville, where the technology boom has yet to hit. 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 on the town square, senior citizens merrily devour ice cream sundaes. None has any idea that John Albert Burks's execution is scheduled for that evening.

"There are so many these days," the owner of the store says. "It's hard to keep track."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets