In 1995, we set out to do a story about Capital Punishment -- a
macro-examination of an execution's effect on all who take part in it or have a
stake in it. What happens to the warden and the guards who feed and tend the
man only to send him off to die? What happens to the chaplain whose job is to
minister to terrified people that the chaplain's own institution is killing?
To the relatives of the man's victims -- do they gain some comfort or "closure"
by the death of the murderer? To the relatives of the murderer -- is their
grief or agony a fair price to pay for it all? Above all, we would get to know
the condemned man, learn everything we could about him and his crimes, and
record what happens to him as he sees his death approaching. Most Americans
have made it clear that they favor the Death Penalty. But support or
opposition to it seems based largely on abstract arguments and slogans about
crime and punishment. What if the whole process were to be given human faces
at close range? Might it have an affect on our opinions about Capital
All along the way, during the three-and-a-half-year making of this film, we ran
across nuggets of the very things we had in mind. An assistant warden who
presided in the execution chamber, muttering, as much to himself as to us, "Who
knows, maybe someday this will make us all crazy." A guard on Death Row telling
us, with no humor intended, "I used to work as a forester -- these guys are
different than trees." A prison chaplain who'd ministered to
ninety-nine men in the last hours before their execution, saying that after the
first one, he was unable to sleep for four days and it hadn't gotten any easier
in all the time since. But his successor,
Chaplain Brazzil, calling it
"a wonderful job" and saying he thinks of the condemned inmates as people dying
from long-term illnesses.
The center of the story was bound to be the man being executed. We were
looking for a typical murderer (if there is such a thing). And it had to be
someone willing to admit he'd committed murder, as well as someone articulate
enough to describe that experience and the ordeal
he was going through
on Death Row.
Clifford Boggess of Saint Jo, Texas, seemed perfect. He admitted committing
two murders in 1986, both premeditated, both for money, both helpless old men,
both brutal. And he was possessed of a fantastic memory, which allowed him to
describe both murders in precise detail -- not just what he did and how the
victims reacted, but what he was thinking as they happened. He spoke, and
wrote, in paragraph form, every word just right for what he wanted to say. He
remembered important events, and names, from his past. And he was willing to
dig into that past. In fact, he seemed as curious as we about his own
creation. As a bonus, he had become an accomplished artist
amounted to an abstract autobiography.
Perfect. Except that our "typical" murderer turned out to be extraordinary
instead, and, inexorably, our story about the details of a typical execution
began to shift into a story about Clifford Boggess. He commandeered us. Not
that we liked him. Several members of our production team were repelled by
him, and all of us wish he'd never been born. But the more we were drawn into
his story, the richer it became. It borrowed from one classic after another:
Crime and Punishment, for one, except that unlike Raskolnikov, whose
conscience betrayed him to the police and then finally helped him find
redemption, Boggess, with no conscience to betray him, lacked any means of
redemption, however he tried (and I became convinced that he did try very
hard); Frankenstein, the monster made without a soul, doomed from the
beginning; Pinocchio, the wooden boy trying to become human. Boggess
himself liked The Wizard of Oz and was always longing for some place
that didn't exist. And he liked the works of Jane Austen, for reasons that
escape me. And then he came to embrace the works and life story of Vincent Van
Gogh and The Bible, identifying with the thief on the cross.
Since completing the writing of this documentary, just last week, I read Robert
Hare's book about psychopaths, Without Conscience, and was interested
to find that Clifford Boggess fit the profile -- the checklist of
characteristics -- of a psychopath very neatly: the notion that the world
revolved around him, the manipulativeness, the inability to care about anyone
else. But there was one exception. Instead of the inveterate liar that helps
identify a psychopath, I found Clifford Boggess to be rigorously, almost
obsessively, honest, at least when it came to facts -- and we checked them.
That honesty, combined with his amazing recall of details, is part of what made
his recitation of his murders so chilling. I never believed his protestations
of remorse. But I do believe he thought he was telling the truth
even about that; he knew he wanted to feel remorse and tried so hard to do it
he thought he'd succeeded. All of which makes me think he may have invented a
new tool for the psychopath to use to manipulate people -- honesty. The only
other explanation I can think of is the one he gave: he wouldn't be able to lie
to God, so why bother to lie to anyone else.
But he did indulge in one sham. He tried to smuggle out a drawing of the
prison fence near Death Row, knowing that was a breach of prison security. He
hid it inside another, innocuous, drawing of a cowboy. The warden caught it,
took away Boggess's art supplies and put him in a "lockdown" cell for six
months. Alas, the person he tried to smuggle the drawing-within-a-drawing out
to was me, causing the warden to wonder if we weren't part of an escape plot
and losing me access to Boggess for more than a year. This suspicion seemed
ridiculous to us then, but, even though I only caught a glimpse of the fence
drawing, in the fuming warden's office, I think it was the very fence that
several Death Row inmates tried to break through in an escape attempt this
I don't believe Boggess had escape in mind with that drawing. It was part of
his "Death Row Series" of artwork that he wanted to
have exhibited and
sold on the outside. I think he had a much grander, posthumous, escape plan:
to get his soul into heaven and his ashes into France, to be scattered where
Van Gogh once was incarcerated.
Boggess had shown a horrifying lack of feeling for the two old men he murdered.
He murdered them brutally, for paltry amounts of money -- a few hundred
dollars. He overlooked more money in the pockets of his first victim than he
got from his second. But he seemed to have similar unconcern for his own life
-- a highly intelligent man bragging to casual acquaintances about committing
the first murder. He simply squandered all three lives.
The killer with a deprived background is a cliche, but Boggess's infancy is a
tale of horror beyond ordinary limits. His biological mother, by all accounts,
was drug addicted, alcoholic and brutal to the children. Three of those
children died violent deaths. Clifford was left to the care of his
nine-year-old sister and to a brother later imprisoned for child abuse. Then
he was abandoned. "There was something missing in him," his adoptive uncle
would notice later. "There was something in his eyes that I seen in some those
crazy sons-of-bitches up in Folsom." That uncle, Carl, had served time in
California's Folsom Prison for bank robbery and shooting a policeman, but
he saw something beyond the pale in Clifford Boggess -- from the
One of the two Texas Rangers who worked on Boggess's case, Phil Ryan, a man who
had spent nearly his whole career investigating murders and interviewing
murderers, said he considered Boggess the most cold-blooded of them all.
Cold-blooded, conscienceless, or not, Boggess kept dreaming up new methods of
winning some measure of forgiveness or redemption. Maybe he was only trying to
sweeten the pot in bargaining with God. For several years on Death Row, he
used the income from the sale of his paintings to sponsor a foreign orphan.
And he offered to drop his court appeals and volunteer for immediate execution
if his organs could be used as transplants, pointing out to me that that might
actually save more lives than he took (Are you listening, God?) Evidently, the
chemicals used in lethal injection executions render the organs unuseable, so,
unwittingly or not, the offer was an empty one.
Probably his most ambitious effort at atonement involved Lisa Hazelwood, the
granddaughter of his second murder victim. During my first visit with Boggess,
he told me that what bothered him most about the murders was seeing the
sixteen-year-old girl come into her grandfather's store at the point when he
was about to rob and murder the old man. She left without knowing what was
happening -- but sensing that something was wrong -- and he went ahead with the
murder. Boggess said he'd tried to get in touch with her, but failed. I
mentioned it to her during visits to relatives of both victims, and some time
later she decided to write to Boggess to relieve the guilt she'd been carrying
around for ten years for not having somehow saved her grandfather. She said
later that just writing the letter was
a great relief for her. Boggess
spent six weeks composing a letter of
"reconciliation" to answer her.
It was full of apologies and expressions of remorse, but the words were so
typically cock-sure that it read more like a sermon or a lecture than an
apology. Try as he might, nothing Boggess said or did rang true.
He did seem fully human to Conny Krispin, his "pen-pal"
from Germany. She corresponded with him
for eight years and visited him several times. They referred to each other as
"best friends." And, unlike our team, she evidently believed his remorse to
have been genuine and said he had helped her become a better Christian.
Women visiting men (strangers) on Death Row is a frequent phenomenon. Some
people consider them groupies. Conny said she thinks many are. Why? What's
the allure? I asked. Conny suggested two reasons: the relationship is safe,
protected, as it is, by bulletproof glass and steel mesh; and a man on Death
Row is willing to give a person their full attention.
After more than eleven years on Death Row, Boggess was executed June 11th,
1998. His 33rd birthday, by his own request (after his last appeal was denied
by the Supreme Court.) "The same age as Christ when He died," Boggess
said. He seemed to witnesses at the execution to be in good spirits, and the
Chaplain said they sang and joked together in the hours leading up to it. His
last words were brief. He'd planned something elaborate, including some
remarks against the Death Penalty. And he planned to sing a song, lying on the
execution gurney: "Because Christ Lived." But the Chaplain persuaded him to
keep it simple. To prevent his body being buried anonymously in the prison
cemetery, Boggess arranged by mail to have a small-town Texas mortuary pick it
up and cremate it. Then the ashes were mailed to England and a pen pal there
would take them on to St. Remy France to scatter them at the monastery where
Vincent Van Gogh had been committed for several years. Boggess paid for all
this in advance with proceeds from the sale of his paintings.
What had begun as a search for answers about the Death Penalty became, on the
editing bench, mostly a story of Clifford Boggess -- his transformation from
talented little boy to cold-blooded killer and then his attempt to
transform himself again on Death Row. Though he had lured us in a different
direction, the original questions remained: Did executing him make sense? Did
it do more good than harm? Did it amount to Justice?
Jack Collier, the only surviving close relative of Boggess's first victim,
Frank Collier, seemed to get a little satisfaction, though he thought lethal
injection "too easy." Lisa Hazelwood says she's relieved that Boggess is dead,
but is frustrated at what seemed to be Boggess going merrily to his death.
Boggess's adoptive mother suffered great agony, I believe, throughout Boggess's
eleven years awaiting execution, the agony relieved some by his phone call to
her an hour before it happened. The same is true of his adoptive grandmother,
in Saint Jo, who told me afterwards that she thought he was "better off now
than the living death he had on Death Row."
When we began on this story the members of our crew were about equally divided,
pro and con (I was con), on the Death Penalty, and remained so at the end.
Although I got to know Clifford Boggess pretty well in those three-plus years
and respected his struggle to become human, I can't say that I felt grief about
his death, and that worried me: had his emotionlessness been contagious? As I
reported at the end of the film, I felt lousy the day of his execution. I
think one reason was the waste he represented. His uncle Carl -- and I believe
this ex-con had the most accurate fix of anyone on Boggess -- said, "I feel
sorry for the deal he got." He was referring to the damaged goods that
Clifford represented even as a tiny child -- the abuse, neglect, probable
drug-and-alcohol addiction, and abandonment he received at the hands of his
natural parents. Clifford Boggess said he would welcome scientific study --
before and after his death -- into the effects this horrific maltreatment had
had on his mind. Instead, he was simply warehoused and then disposed of. And
I'm sure he won't be the last.