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.

Strothers also contends that Burks's cousin Bilton, who died in 1997, had plenty of opportunity to recant his testimony if he really thought Burks didn't murder Contreras.

But Nancy Cobb, Burks's sister, recalls that her cousin had told her from the get-go that he was pressured into his testimony by Strothers. "He said, 'They were going to nail his balls to the wall,' " she recalls. "Everyone knew it was all lies anyway."

Strothers says he seriously considered attending Burks's execution after one of Contreras's family members requested his presence. In the end, however, he stayed home. "It's not that I don't have the stomach for it," he says. "I don't mind shooting my dog. But now I am a sitting judge, and it would look funny if I went to executions."

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."

At 6:09 p.m. the executioner began injecting what the TDCJ Web site says is $86.08 worth of drugs, the same drugs doctors sometimes use to save patients. At 6:11 p.m. the executioner signaled to other officials that he had administered the lethal dose.

In the tight quarters of the witness room, where five of Contreras's family members, two reporters, Fitzgerald and two other TDCJ officials had squeezed into a space of about four feet by ten feet, Burks's heavy last breaths were picked up by the mike and readily audible to the witnesses. His eyes closed.

Coming from an air vent, a cry pierced the air. "Oh, no, Lord have mercy," the voice called. It was Burks's sister Cobb, in the other witness room, separated by one wall.

Lyons, who was watching in Cobb's room, said the sister pounded at the wall and muttered something like, "Get me out of here." The guards ushered her out.

Fitzgerald was among the most restless in the Contreras family's room. One of the man's daughters dabbed her eyes. But Fitzgerald paced in the corner the whole time, constantly glancing at his watch.

"When's the doctor coming?" he whispered to a guard. He sighed and shook out his legs as though they had knots in them.

The doctor, a bearded man in a blue suit and glasses, whom Fitzgerald would not identify, finally entered at 6:15 p.m. For three long minutes, he examined the patient's chest and face. Then a voice pronounced Burks dead.

The guard standing beside Fitzgerald immediately knocked on the door, and someone outside opened it.

When Fitzgerald and the reporters reassembled in his office, Graczyk, the AP reporter, started typing his account. Fitzgerald grabbed a stack of phone message slips and began dialing.

For the reporters, one more event that evening needed to be recorded. The victim's family had prepared a statement, which Fitzgerald said they would read shortly.

Castlebury popped his head in the office to offer another detail for the newspapers. Burks's body would be cremated, and a Swedish woman, the Sonya he mentioned in his last words, would take the remains back to Europe. The two of them had been writing each other.

Many of the bodies of executed men, Fitzgerald says, are never claimed. They are buried in a cemetery maintained by supervised inmates a mile and a half from the Walls Unit.

Soon Fitzgerald's assistant distributed a fill-in-the-blanks form to the reporters. It is the official account of the execution. The one-page sheet gives the precise time when guards took Burks from the holding cell and strapped him to the gurney, when the executioner injected the saline solution, when Burks started his final statement, when the executioner injected the lethal dose and when the doctor pronounced Burks dead.

The form also has spaces for what are categorized as unusual occurrences. For Burks's execution, those were left blank.

Fitzgerald's office puts together a complete press package for each execution. The white folders include a page titled "Deathwatch" that lists Burks's activities for the past three days, including his hefty last meal: fried chicken, a pound of bacon, a 16-ounce T-bone steak (well done), Big Red soda and coffee. TDCJ rules forbid gum, alcohol and tobacco. His prison record and a summary of the crime for which he was condemned are also included.

Back at his office, Fitzgerald asks the reporters simply, "Why did the turkey shoot the guy?"

"The old man wouldn't give up the money, and I think he may have used the N-word," replies Witherspoon, the Waco reporter and the last one to interview Burks.

It's nearly 7 p.m., and the victim's family has still not emerged. Lyons, like most of the witnesses, wants to go home. "Can you give us a copy of the statement?" she asks Fitzgerald.

"They want to read it," he says.

No one in the room seems ready to defy Fitzgerald and leave.

A few minutes later Gloria Torres, the victim's oldest daughter, stands in the TDCJ administration building lobby in front of the reporters. Torres is composed. She did not witness the execution. "We wish to express our sincere condolences to his survivors," she says. "We, too, know how devastating is the unnecessary and premature loss of one that we greatly love."

A TV reporter who has joined the group asks whether she feels better knowing Burks is dead. "The Bible says an eye for an eye," Torres says. "But had he not been executed, I could have lived with that."

Larry Fitzgerald had already headed back to his office. He'd had enough for one day.

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