The room is an unnatural shade of green. “Kelly” would be the best word to describe it, but all I could think about was why the room was painted at all; why the Texas correctional spent even one dollar to make the execution chambers at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville (also known as “Walls Unit”) less clinical than the bare brick walls would have been. Maybe a church youth group came to paint it; maybe someone donated buckets of leftover paint from their backyard shed project. Maybe kelly green is the most soothing color to see before you die.
Last week saw the first executions in the US (Florida, Georgia, and Missouri) since Clayton Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma in April was botched. According to the website DeathPenaltyInfo.org, there are 17 more executions scheduled for 2014. It was with all of this in mind that I recently watched Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary about Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two young men from Conroe, Texas, who were teenagers at the time they were involved in a triple homicide. Perry and Burkett were responsible for the murders of Sandra Stotler, Sandra’s son Adam, and their friend Jeremy Richardson. They dumped Sandra Stotler’s body in nearby Crater Lake and left Adam and Jeremy’s bodies where they had killed them, in a dense wooded area. The reward and the motive for the killings was a red Camaro; Adam’s white Isuzu was a bonus.
Herzog is clear early on about his opposition to the death penalty, but the film doesn’t take sides in the debate. Instead, it presents the story on both ends–we hear from Burkett’s father (also imprisoned) and wife, from victim’s families, from Sandra Stotler’s daughter Lisa Stotler-Balloun who lost her mother and brother (Adam was actually her sister’s son, but was raised as Lisa’s brother) in one night. “Jesus probably wouldn’t have been an advocate of capital punishment,” Herzog said off-camera. “Probably not,” Stotler-Balloun replied. “But some people just don’t deserve to live.”
Toward the end of the film we meet Fred Allen, a former death row prison guard whose years in that line of work have made him an opponent of capital punishment. You can watch part of the interview here–it’s powerful stuff to hear from someone who has participated in over a hundred executions, buckling limbs to tables and moving lifeless bodies from one gurney to another.
Michael Perry maintained his innocence of Sandra Stotler’s death throughout the film, claiming that his initial confession had been extorted by police. He had found religion in prison, saying at one point that he would be going home whether he was executed or not. Jason Burkett pled guilty to the murders of Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson and is 13 years into a 40 year sentence.
Michael Perry was executed in that kelly green room on July 1, 2010. Lisa Stotler-Balloun was there, as was Perry’s mother. His father had died years before. Perry’s last meal was three bacon cheese omelets, three chicken enchiladas, and three cans each of Pepsi, Coke, and Dr Pepper. His last words were, “I want to start off by saying I want everyone to know that’s involved in this atrocity that they are forgiven by me. Mom, I love you. I’m coming home, Dad. I’m coming home.”
“By executing Michael, I don’t think it brought any of those people back,” said Delbert Burkett, Jason’s father. “I don’t think it deterred anything. I was on my knees [the night of the execution] at my bunk, praying for Michael…and a feeling come over me, that’s very very hard to explain, and it’s like I felt the loss of what used to be my son’s best friend.”