Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an examination of murder and capital punishment. Although Herzog makes no secret of the fact that he is opposed to the death penalty, he resists the temptation to editorialize in this film, instead telling the story through interviews and leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. The result is a deeply moving and deeply disturbing work.

The film revolves around Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were accused of murdering three people. Perry was given the death penalty and Burkett was given a life sentence. As teenagers, Perry and Burkett decided they wanted to steal a red Camaro that belonged to Sandra Stotler, who was the mother of a friend of theirs, Adam Stotler. On October 24, 2001, they went to her house in a gated community near Conroe, Texas. They killed her and then dumped her body in a nearby lake. When they went back to get the Camaro, they found that the gate was closed. They waited around, hoping that someone might let them in. As luck would have it, Adam Stotler and his friend, Jeremy Richardson both showed up. Perry and Burkett told them that a friend of theirs had been injured in a hunting accident and they needed help. They led Stotler and Richardson to a wooded area and then shot them. They took the clicker from Stotler so they could open the gate. They also took the Isuzu Rodeo that Stotler had been driving, as well as Stotler’s wallet. They then went to the house and took the Camaro. (You can find a more detailed account of these events here.)

It was a stupid crime that was carried out in a stupid manner. Within a few day, both Perry and Burkett were arrested. There is no doubt about their guilt. Immediately after his arrest, Perry confessed to the murders and told where the bodies of Stotler and Richardson were. (Perry later claimed that the police coerced his confession. This is quite possibly true, but it begs the question of how he knew where the bodies were.) There were dozens of witnesses who saw Perry and Burkett with the stolen vehicles. Some said they heard them talk about the killings.

A large portion of this film is devoted to interviews with people who knew Perry and Burkett. Herzog takes us into a world where crime and punishment are everyday facts of life. While Burkett was growing up, his father was in and out of prison. The elder Burkett is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for multiple felonies. One of Burkett’s friends tells us that he learned how to read while in prison. Jeremy Richardson’s older brother served time in prison. While he was attending Jeremy’s funeral, the police arrested him for violating his parole.

There are extensive interviews with both Perry and Burkett. They seem like human opposites. Perry smiles a lot and tells us that he will go to Heaven. (Herzog interviewed him eight days before his execution.) Burkett is poker-faced, and he only discusses things relating to his case. It’s hard to imagine these two plotting a murder together. Neither one of them discusses the killings, no doubt because they were both appealing their convictions. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing. The essential mystery of this story – why two seemingly sane persons would commit such terrible acts – remains unknowable.

In one scene, Herzog visits a yard where the red Camaro sits slowly rusting in the open air. “Three people died for this car,” a police detective observes. The sense of waste is palpable.

There are extensive interviews with relatives of the murder victims. Their grief is heartrending. There is also an interview with Burkett’s father, who turns out to be an interesting and articulate person. He blames himself for what his son did, and he expresses his sorrow for the victims’ families. He talks about how at one time he and his son were hand-cuffed together on a prison bus. He tells us that this moment made him feel like a “failure”. There is also an interview with a woman who married Burkett after he was convicted and who claims that she is pregnant with his child. In all honesty, I have no idea what to make of this person. And there is an interview with a man who supervised over 125 executions in Texas. After the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998, he began seeing the faces of all the people whose deaths he presided over. He resigned from his job, even though it cost him his pension. “No one has a right to take another person’s life,” he tells us.

This film makes it clear that the execution of Perry accomplished nothing. It also shows the unfairness of our criminal justice system: Burkett didn’t get the death penalty, even though he was just as guilty as Perry, if not more so. At Burkett’s trial, his father gave an emotional speech asking the jury for leniency, which resulted in Burkett getting a life sentence. Perry had no one to speak for him, so he was killed.

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