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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
A life of death
Walls prison, Huntsville
Huntsville is the scene of many anti-death penalty protests
In the course of his job, Larry Fitzgerald witnessed the execution of 219 people in Texas before announcing their deaths to the world.

Mr Fitzgerald retired in August from his job as public information officer for Huntsville, which has been described as the execution capital of America.

Almost 450 of the 3,500 people currently on death row in American prisons are in Huntsville - and last year half of all executions in the United States took place in Texas.

"You get used to it," Mr Fitzgerald told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"My background is as a reporter, and I always used to make sure I would leave the grisly scenes behind - I didn't take them home with me.

"You've got to remember that nobody likes seeing anybody die. But one also has to remember that this person did something to find themselves in that situation."

Pickaxe murderer

Mr Fitzgerald said he had only been able to continue with his job because he had used his grounding as a reporter to detach himself from what he had seen.

Karla Faye Tucker
Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998
"I don't think I could have survived if I took everything home," he stated.

"Certainly, there's some executions that stand out, that I will always remember.

"Karla Faye Tucker comes to mind - she was the first woman executed by the state of Texas. She was a pickaxe murderer - she took a pickaxe and killed a woman."

Tucker was executed in 1998 by lethal injection for the murders of Debra Ruth Davis Thornton and Jerry Lynn Dean in 1983.

She had appealed to be spared, protesting that she had become a changed woman.

"She had a very profound religious experience while she was in prison, became a born-again Christian. I got to know her quite well," Mr Fitzgerald said.

Protesters outside Huntsville prison campaign against the execution of Gary Graham
Huntsville gets hammered for being the execution capital of the US, but I would like to think of it as being the victims' rights capital
Larry Fitzgerald
"Never did I ever doubt the fact that she was sincere in her belief."

Several appeals were made on Tucker's behalf, including a last-minute attempt to have the sentence commuted.

None of them succeeded.

"After about two weeks of talking to her, she said: "You've never lied to me before, what do you think is going to happen?'

"I said: 'Karla, I think you are going to be executed.' And she shook her head and said: 'Yeah, I know.'"

Last words

But Mr Fitzgerald insisted that even though he got close to some of the people he witnessed die, he still felt there was a reason they were there.

Death chamber in Huntsville prison
Texas pioneered the use of lethal injections
One of the key aspects of his job was to meet the offender when they arrived at the Huntsville Unit on the day they were to be killed.

He would hold a final interview with the prisoner to determine their state of mind and find what they wanted to say in their final statement. This information would then be given to the media outside.

Mr Fitzgerald said that all executions were very different due to the nature of the individuals and their response to what was due to happen to them.

"Some spend their entire time standing up telling one-liners. Others would be very tearful. Others would just be very withdrawn and into themselves," he said.

"There are others who would eat a very hearty final meal, others who would not touch anything. They're all different."

'Exciting job'

He admitted that the rare occasions when he met the families of those whose death he would preside over were tough, but said it was also difficult meeting the families of their victims.

Every time the phone rings it's almost like Russian roulette - you don't know if you have an escape on your hands, if you have a hostage situation, if you have any number of things that could happen
Larry Fitzgerald
"I think that's what people have really forgotten in this whole process - I've said it before and I think it bears repeating that the city of Huntsville gets hammered for being the execution capital of the US, but I would like to think of it as being the victims' rights capital.

"The word you hear about a lot is closure. I don't buy closure. I think it is a tragic event for both families - for all involved."

He said he supported the death penalty but did not believe it was a deterrent.

"Our Supreme Court has ruled it as not cruel and usual," he stated.

"At one time when the primary means of execution was electrocution, they did rule that it was cruel and unusual.

"Then Texas took the lead and came up with a new form [lethal injection], and so far it has stood the test in the courts."

Mr Fitzgerald added that his work was "probably the most exciting job I've ever had in my life."

"Every time the phone rings it's almost like Russian roulette - you don't know if you have an escape on your hands, if you have a hostage situation, if you have any number of things that could happen," he said.

"I really enjoyed it."


SEE ALSO:
Milestone Texas execution blocked
13 Mar 03  |  Americas
Death row fight for justice
17 Jan 03  |  England


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