'Abyss' a Moving Look at Capital Punishment

Article excerpt

Byline: Adam Mazmanian, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

L egend ary director Werner Herzog clearly states his personal opposition to the death penalty in at least two of the interviews he

conducted as part of his moving, deeply felt documentary on the aftermath of a brutal triple murder in Texas. All the same, Into the Abyss is too deliberately idiosyncratic to be tagged as a message movie.

What Into the Abyss does is direct the viewer to confront capital punishment not in ideological terms, but as a human institution with all the peculiarities, inconsistencies and hypocrisies that attend human institutions.

If Into the Abyss were an advocacy movie, the 2001 triple murder that placed documentary subjects Michael Perry on death row and Jason Burkett in prison for life would make an interesting test case.

There isn't much room to doubt their guilt in the pointless killing spree in 2001 - originally cooked up to steal a Camaro from the garage of the first victim, Sandra Stotler. The two 19-year-olds did not do much to cover their tracks: They bragged about the crime, gave friends joy rides in stolen vehicles and eventually confessed to police.

While Perry made claims of innocence from death row, Mr. Herzog does not dignify these with any real attention, and notes that both men included details in their confessions that only those responsible would have known. The two elected to be tried separately, and this appears to be the only reason Perry was sentenced to die and Burkett was sentenced to prison.

In the film's most moving section, Burkett's father, Delbert Burkett, discusses the testimony he gave at his son's sentencing hearing. The elder Burkett, himself a serial felon serving a 40-year prison sentence, told the jury he was to blame for his son's crime, and begged them to spare his life. …