Imagine, you’re rotting in jail with an execution date looming, what are you thinking? Werner Herzog’s new documentary film, Into the Abyss, which premiered Friday at the Toronto Film Festival, tackles this question.
Digital Dying recently spoke with Harry Schleiff, a New York City based video producer who worked on the film about the surprisingly poetic language of death row inmates, how time slows in the moments before death and just what it means to be a death row groupie.
Describe the film, is it a political statement on the death penalty?
The film follows the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two 19 year olds who basically stole a car and ended up killing three people over it, a totally mindless crime. Herzog interviewed Michael Perry something like ten days before he was to be executed. He tried as hard as he could to avoid making a film explicitly about the death penalty that made some sort of statement. It’s more a look into the individual situations of these people, because when you start to look into these death penalty cases absurd details surface. Herzog is interested in questions like, how does knowing when and how you’re going to die affect an individual? How does knowing that change time? We interviewed a number of other death row prisoners, footage which will appear in a TV series to be released at a later date.
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How is the mind affected by a death sentence?
I’ll give you the example of Hank Skinner, who was in prison for killing two people and had been given an execution date. He was taken out of his cell and driven a bunch of miles chained up in the back of van with two guards who were ordered to shoot to kill if there was a problem. Skinner explains this in detail to Herzog. He’s a very elegant speaker. He talks about the last trees he saw, and seeing a young girl with her mother pull up in the car behind them. She points at him, and he wonders if the girl knows he’s on his way to be executed. He talks about the last meal, which is prepared by other prisoners. Usually people only eat a little bit because they’re so nervous. Skinner said time slowed down an incredible amount and became not really a progression of moments as we think of it as, but like one freezing moment. He became unaware of what time and day it was. Just before he was to be killed Skinner called his lawyer and his lawyer said, ‘You have incredible timing, it turns out they’re going to give you a stay’. He broke down and started crying. Then he ate all his food.
How did these “poets” feel about the lives that they took?
Burkett explains the crime as Perry having much more to do with it, and that he didn’t actually kill anyone. For Perry it was vice versa. That sort of blaming the other is common. There’s also a certain bravado at work here, the guys acting all gangster. Like with a man named Joseph Garcia. He got in a fight over a girl and got knocked down then chased the man down and stabbed him to death. Mostly just very stupid mistakes made by very young kids. There was one person who admitted his crime outright, this quintessentially psychopathic kind of guy who committed a horrible murder in Florida.
What are death row groupies?
Many women begin relationships with death row inmates. There’s a woman in the film named Mellysa Thompson who was an advocate against death row and ended up becoming involved in the Perry-Burkett case. First she met Perry, who told her, ‘Whatever you do, don’t meet Burkett.’ Of course, she goes and meets Burkett and ends up falling in love with him. She is educated and pretty smart but she ends up marrying this guy. She explains this whole situation of when she realized they were in love; a rainbow came from inside the prison to outside. Through some sort of covert operation she got some of his semen and was artificially inseminated and is now pregnant with his child. She is not necessarily a groupie though because she believes he’s innocent and is fighting for him to be freed. Groupies are infatuated with death row men because of the allure that they have killed and that they are now condemned. For example, Scott Peterson, the San Diego man convicted of murdering his wife, has a huge following and apparently gets thousands of naked pictures sent to him.
What was the physical space of death row like?
The walls of the visitation rooms were painted in hushed bleak tones. We were interviewing through bullet proof glass in most cases, or mesh wire. People scratch their names and messages in the glass. We went to a cemetery about a mile and a half out from the prison where they bury death row inmates in unmarked graves. Other prisoners dig the graves. You’re buried by your number. A lot of these people don’t have family members to bury them. The execution chamber has like four or five rooms, each with different names, there’s a long hallway some people call the green mile. At the end of it there’s a shower and a room where the inmates spend their final moments. There is a bible on the table and inmates can request certain things. We interviewed a captain of the tie-down team. He said the craziest request was when a prisoner told him, ‘I would love to smoke a doobie right now.’ The guy was like, ‘Sorry, no can do.”
Was hanging around death row haunting?
I’m 22 and saw a kid who must have been my age or younger, he looked South American. We made eye contact, it was very bizarre, thinking that it could be you on the other side of the glass. There’s a very thin separation between human beings on some level, and you end up thinking, how big would the change have to be for me to be in there and him to be outside. The most terrifying thing for me is that it’s our closest attempt at a systematized way to kill someone. I think it’s even more terrifying than some of the more archaic ways of execution, like say being stoned to death. To be put down an assembly line where everything from the design of the cell to the design of your chamber is part of the process. Herzog claims it was one the more intense filmmaking experiences of his life, and when this guy says he has an intense experience I think he can really mean it because he has done a lot of things. He told me that while editing he usually works from 9 to 5 but with this film he could only edit for five hours a day because the footage was so intense. And he started smoking cigarettes again.
Are you a death row groupie? Have strong opinions about the death penalty? Or Herzog himself? Leave a comment below..