Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog’s documentary on capital punishment. The case in focus is the triple murder by Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett in Texas of Sandra St0ttler, Adam Stottler, and Jeremy Richardson. Perry was given the death penalty and in a separate trial, Jason Burkett was sentenced to life in prison. The crimes, covered in detail in police footage and interviews, took place in October of 2001. Burkett was executed on July 1st of 2010. Herzog’s interview with Burkett took place about a week before the execution.
The documentary starts off though, with an interview in the Herzog style (off-camera voice) with the “death house chaplain”, with numbered crosses in the background of executed paupers graves. The Reverend Richard Lopez weeps at the near death of a squirrel by his hand (car). Then the interview with Perry, a smiling stone cold psychotic who professes his innocence and his belief in God and heaven.
The police footage and evidence make it clear that Perry is guilty. Crime scene footage show a kitchen where Sandra Stottler was in the process of baking cookies, in a particularly poignant bit of real life. The senseless crime was all about stealing a red Camaro.
One interview has the jails executioner who had served in over 100 executions, including the one for Perry. He describes the procedures in clinical detail. He also describes his involvement with the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998 which began to haunt him shortly after the Perry execution. He quit after that as he said he could no longer do his job. How the 12 year old Faye execution began to haunt him that many years later is anyones guess. He quit and lost his pension which seems unjust. But its Texas, ok?
The story of Perry’s accomplice is actually more interesting. His father is serving 4o years in the same prison as his son, Jason Burkett. The father relates a story of a Thanksgiving that they and another son celebrated Thanksgiving in the same prison. Hearing the father tell the story of his life, you can see that the sons were doomed from the start. Jason was given a life sentence (eligible for parole after serving 40 years), and the story his father tells sounds like his plea to the jury saved his son’s life. Sounded plausible. What did not sound plausible was the interview with Jason’s wife – she began to correspond with him after he was convicted and the eventually married…but she’s “not one of those”…oh yes she is. She’s now pregnant with Jason’s child (she says). She not unattractive but evidenced a strange bit of body language – a particular thing she kept doing with her hair on one side that seemed pathological. She seemed whacked to me anyway.
This is not a case of death row executions of innocents. This death penalty stance comes from a moral place. But frankly, Herzog doesn’t make the case very well.