June 11th, 1998, 6.21 p.m.: inmate # 887 is pronounced dead
The files of the TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) give us the information about his last meal: Two double Cheeseburgers, salad, French fries, 1 litre of chilled Pepsi, Chocolate-Brownies, 1 cup of Blue Bell ice-cream - and a piece of birthday-cake. The 153rd execution in the US-State Texas since the reinstatement of the Death Penalty hits on his 33rd birthday
Clifford H. Boggess received the death sentence for the murder of Frank Collier, an 86-year-old owner of a grocery store in Saint Jo, committed during a robbery. The autopsy showed that Collier's throat was cut and he had signs of various injuries, one in the face looked like the imprint of the sole of a tennis shoe. He also received a life sentence for the murder of Roy Vance Hazelwood, shot during a robbery about one month after Frank Collier's murder. - [Details about the murder of Frank Collier]
Cliff Boggess was born June 11th, 1965 as the eighth child of a manic-depressive and alcoholic drug addicted mother, who had an affair with her husband's boss for many years. Boggess was the fifth child of this illegitimate relationship. His biological father committed suicide during the time of the pregnancy. When Cliff was 11 months old, all the children were taken away from the mother by the authorities, due to neglect and abuse. Only when the mother had sorted her life out, she got the children back, one by one. When it came to Cliff, she declared that she had enough children and that she had no use for him, and waived her parental rights to the state. (He didn't find out the fate of his biological mother until after years in prison: In 1979 she was raped by a drunken ex-husband, and beaten to death.) After staying in two different foster homes, at the age of two he was adopted by a 20-year-old naval man and his wife. They got divorced two years later. At the age of four Cliff then came to the parents of his adoptive father. They gave him very little love and understanding.
Being a juvenile Cliff neither identified to the Boggess family, nor to his hometown of Saint Jo. He had little contact with people of his own age, who lived at least five or six blocks away across the state highway on the other side of town. His adoptive-grandmother rarely let him go away from home. His former teachers and schoolmates remember him as a good student, a good football and piano player, polite, but with an explosive temper.
As a young adult he quickly felt at home in the company of drinkers and drug users, took drugs like LSD himself and drank a lot of alcohol. Through alcohol and drug abuse he was first kicked out of college and later suspended from the Army. After a failed attempt to sort out his life, he ceased to care about anybody or anything anymore, including himself. In his own words: "I went out and bought a case of beer, five hits of LSD, some Methamphetamine (speed) for intravenous use, some cigarettes, and I began a VERY self-destructive 'spree' of drugs and crime that ended 65 days later with me in jail suspected (and guilty) of two murders."
MY STORY WITH CLIFF
I got to know Cliff in December 1997 when I accompanied a friend to Huntsville, Texas, as she wanted to visit him there. My friend had been writing to him for several years. The person I met there (Cliff) made an exceptional gentle and sympathetic impression on me - it seemed barely conceivable that this was the same man who killed two humans 11 years back in a really brutal manner. It was after this visit that I started writing Cliff myself. I could relate a few things, or better: feelings, that he had stated about his childhood to myself in a similar way. Already during the reading of his third letter, I had a feeling that no one ever before in my life had understood me in the depth of my soul as well as he did. A very deep friendship was established during an astonishingly short amount of time. In April 1998 I flew to Texas again to visit Cliff, this time alone. Two weeks later I got the news that his execution date was set for June 11th, along with his question asking if I would come to visit him on his last days and to attend the execution. I had thought about that before, what I would do if that question came my way. Like my friend - I imagined sitting at home, looking at the clock, knowing what was happening and to be able to do nothing at all. That seemed to be more dreadful for us than the thought to watch it all and to give Cliff the re-assurance he was not alone. So Texas got to see us both a second time (for me the third visit), and the experience to see a human being, a friend, die in front of my eyes, has dug itself in my soul indelibly.
ART AND PAINTING
After everything, which I know and have learned, I am convinced that Cliff Boggess has changed very much within the 12 years, which he spent on Death Row in Huntsville. According to his own statement his occupation with art and painting contributed fundamentally to this change. He started to draw and to paint, and tried out most techniques and styles for example of realism and impressionism or abstract works. His painting got him to look into himself, to deal with the depth of his own nature for the first time. Not only his artistic abilities developed in the death cell with the years; he also became another person. "His art was a way of changing himself from an angry youth to a young man who had empathy and love for people", his lawyer said.
Cliff described his relationship with his works: "If I die down here, I will have no children to live on after me. No one to carry my name. My paintings ARE my children. I give them birth in the deep recesses of my soul and my mind, I care for them and nurture them as I bring them to maturity, and then I send them out into the world, hoping they will be well cared for, and that someone else will love them as I do." Although the motives of his works were very different, the pictures that reflected his prison life mattered to him the most. "My Death Row Series is to be my most important set of paintings, my LEGACY to live on after me and speak for me when I'm gone. I want to show the people in the freeworld the pain, separation, and cruelty of Death Row, and what it's like to live here. And I want to also show them that the men here are NOT animals, but that we are still HUMAN BEINGS!"
In January 1998, the New York Times wrote about an art exhibition with works of 75 different prison inmates: "Only a few of the pieces here measure up to the level of the Outsider Art Fair, among them a colorful model of a trawler made almost entirely of paper by Arnold Davila; the small watercolor-and-pencil works of Arnoldo Tavita Jr.; the ink drawings of Clifford Boggess, who is on and makes pictures of Death Row, and the sculptures by Alvin Kravitz."
THE DIFFERENT CLIFF
Another essential aspect for Cliff, that substantially contributed to his change, was his faith in God, which he had found during the years in prison. Whatever personal views one holds, the fact is that this faith gave Cliff an unbelievable amount of strength and inner peace. Out of this faith, Cliff had decided for honesty and admitted to his crimes, in the full knowledge this confession would cost him his life. And I am convinced Cliff regretted his actions deeply with honest heart and would have done everything to have been able to undo the sorrow he had caused. Cliff accepted responsibility for what he had done entirely, giving no one the blame but himself, nor to exterior circumstances such as his childhood. In the local newspapers of the places of his crimes he asked - addressed to the families, friends and acquaintances of his victims - this to be published: "If anyone has any doubts, the answer is "Yes", I am guilty of both of my crimes. There is no one to blame but myself. No one put me here, but me. I have made horrible choices in my life, and done horrible things. I am sorry. I sincerely apologize to each and every one of you. I wish I could go back in time, and undo all of the damage that I have done. Regrettably, that is impossible. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has forgiven me, although I understand you cannot. And so, like the thief on the cross at Calvary, I go willingly to meet my maker. I will be executed on June 11. It is my hope and my prayer that this gives you some measure of peace."
For a long time Cliff had an ambivalent attitude to his execution. Until the Supreme Court of Justice denied his last appeal in April 1998 and the execution date was set (the setting of it on his birthday was Cliff's own request), he had been willing to accept the possibility or even probability of his execution, although he hadn't resigned his will to live and had asked us in his letters to pray for that the Supreme Court would grant his appeal. When the court decided differently, Cliff did not only accept this but awaited his death willingly as a deliverance. "Susie, you wouldn't wish me to really be here in this hellhole for another 40 years, would you?", he said to a friend from England who visited him in May. The hellhole he referred to was an approximately 1.5 x 2.7 metres (5 x 9 feet) large cell, equipped merely with a bunk and toilet. He used the bunk as work table for art, typing, and reading, and rest for his painting-utensils, etc.; he deposited other things such as shoes, writing materials, and books under the bunk. The approximately 5 cm (2 inches) thin mattress was rolled up during the day in a corner, to be rolled out at night next to the bunk for sleeping on the floor. Every short walk from his cell was made in handcuffs and with strip searches before and afterwards.
It wouldn't be correct to say Cliff resigned himself to his fate, because the term "resignation" - although there of course was some temptation - doesn't fit to Cliff's condition he had in his last days and weeks. His faith gave him an enormous strength and confidence till the very last moment. Even the cheerfulness in which he let us participate illustrated that he was "anxious to go". In his last days his only worry was how we would deal with his death and the witnessing of his execution. He assured us time and again that his death would be a deliverance for him, the path to a different, a better life; that our farewell would not be a definite one but only for some time; that he would wait for us in the other life, and that we - despite the understandable pain about the parting - should be cheerful with and for him. He reminded us time and again of the sentence, which Jesus said to the criminal at the cross: "Today you will be with me in paradise! Not tomorrow or sometime, but TODAY!" Nevertheless a bit of sadness remained within Cliff, having to leave his friends and to leave some or even many of his planned pictures unpainted. Perhaps the only thing missing within the last weeks of his life was time.
The first heavy part of the day was over at noon: the farewell from Cliff at the end of our last visit, a farewell not without tears, but even without the possibility to touch hands. There are no contact visits for condemned persons in Texas. There has always been Plexiglas and bars between us. Only after days or weeks at home I had the thought as to whether I should have gone to the funeral home after Cliff's execution. It would have been my only chance to see Cliff once without metal mesh and Plexiglas between us.
The prison chaplain who oversees executions, Chaplain Brazzil, visited us in the afternoon. He first told us that Cliff was well and that Cliff sent his greetings to us together with "Remember: TODAY I'll be with Jesus in paradise". Then the chaplain explained in details to us what we would face as witnesses to the execution. I'm sure it was important for us to be prepared as much as possible, though in this place inside of me a feeling started, which didn't leave me during the whole thing until the end: Everything seemed to work like a ritual, every step was planned ahead to the smallest detail. It was the feeling that this situation has to be absolutely unreal, and at the same time the clear consciousness of knowing very well that this really happens and is not a bad dream.
A few minutes after 5:00 p.m. we drove up at the rear side of the administration building, as instructed. We were taken into reception by two bodyguards, who did not leave us until the end. We were led into a room and spent the largest portion of the time there with waiting. We were led into another room by female officials for a pat-search (search by scan), though it seemed that to them their task was not particularly pleasant and they were relatively superficial. We learned that on the floor above us were two family members of Cliff's victims to attend the execution as witnesses. It was most carefully prepared that the two "parties" (witnesses for victim and prisoner) couldn't cross each other's paths.
It must have been around 6:00 p.m., as they escorted us for the short path across the road - passing a couple of TV cameras and few demonstrators - to the opposite building, the Walls Unit, where the executions take place. We had to wait five or ten minutes in an office room once more and we finally were led into the witness room. I don't know whether only my knees trembled in fear, or if it was my heart beating. The witness room is so small that there are no chairs. The relatives of the victims are next to us, separated on the left by a wall. The four of us, three friends of Cliff and his Spiritual Advisor, a Franciscan priest, (no one of Cliff's family was there), are standing close to each other directly in front of the glass window. Behind us are the bodyguards and a few reporters, which I was not aware of at all. In front of us there is the execution chamber with walls painted blue. We have seen it repeatedly on pictures or television but in reality it is much smaller than it seems on the pictures. Cliff is laying there on the gurney, strapped with numerous belts, if it wasn't for the glass we could reach for him. The arms with the IV's are stretched out, the hands are totally wrapped, he is able only to turn his head slightly. He is ready for the deathly injection, ready to be put to sleep like you put to sleep an old or sick dog. The prison chaplain is standing by Cliff's feet, one hand on Cliff's leg. At this moment I feel mankind as unbelievable arrogant, because people are here in the full consciousness of what they are doing, and are killing another man. Of course, Cliff had done this also and this was worst wrong. But that this shall happen in the name of law and order!? What good will this death do anyone? It takes away a person from me that became an inestimable worthy friend in short time. And who of us all watching how Cliff is being killed, would go into death with such strength, confidence and dignity as he does?
When we've entered the witness room and Cliff sees us, he welcomes us, whereupon smiles extended over his whole face. I am somehow surprised. I don't know what I have expected; this actually matches exactly to him, is typical, and maybe his extended smile is just so incomprehensible to me, because my face feels frozen in this death serious situation. The next day I learned from a newspaper, that his smile and his positive attitude were judged by the victim's relatives who said he didn't take it seriously, and everything had been much too easy. I doubt that Cliff's wish his execution should bring the longed-for peace to the relatives of his victims, has been fulfilled.
Cliff starts with his last words and turns to the relatives of his victims first, professing that he is sorry for the pain he had caused them. Then he looks at us and says: "To my friends, I'd like to say that I love you and I'm glad you've been a part of my life. I will miss you. Remember that TODAY, I'll be with Jesus in paradise and I'll see you again." While he speaks to us this way, his smile has disappeared and the corners of mouth twitch as he fights back the tears. Then he looks up, says a prayer, and looks in our direction one last time. He whispers: "I love you", turns his head, and the poison streams into his veins. Things happen quickly, and he is unconscious, he does not move any more. After seconds we hear the weighted noise similar to a snoring a single time, when the lungs collapse and the air escapes, which the prison chaplain has demonstrated to us in the afternoon. Then nothing happens for an eternity. As we were informed before, after the injection they wait for four minutes. For four minutes that seem endless, we stare at the lifeless body before us, till a doctor enters the room, examines Cliff, states the death and announces the time of death at 6:21 p.m.
They escort us out of the witness room. We have to wait at some place to give the other group, the relatives of the victims, some distance. We again cross the road, pass the cameras, and finally be dismissed in the lower floor of the administration building. It is over.
We were not to know that this experience would return to us once again. Unknown to us at the time of Cliff's execution there was a team of the magazine "Stern" (a German magazine) and of the TV-show "sternTV" in Huntsville, Texas, for a report about the Death Penalty and a portrait of the former prison chaplain, the predecessor of Chaplain Brazille. In the spotlight for the magazine report as well as for the TV report, was the then current execution of Clifford Boggess, and one of the cameras that escorted and filmed our way across the street between the administration building and the Walls Unit was from a German TV-channel. Three months later I received a call: They had located us and asked for a live TV interview at the show "sternTV". In a pre-conversation we had the chance to watch the short film-documentary before the show. I saw the pictures and it was like time was reversed. Because the film was made well and because we felt the public should be shown the reality of the death penalty again and again, we agreed to be there.
I had a good look at the experience once again. In February 1999 the US television broadcasted a 90-minute documentary with the title "The Execution" about Cliff, which I got as video. In addition to the documentation there is an extensive Website in the Internet (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution) which gives details.
The documentary in principle isn't bad. It tries to show different views of all who had to say something about Cliff, and Cliff himself had a chance to speak too. The correspondent with the film raises the question whether it has made any sense to execute Cliff Boggess, but he leaves the answer open at the end, leaves it to the viewer to make up his/her own mind. Therefore the resulting reactions were contrary in the letters after the show. "Boggess was a monster, he shall burn in hell" and similar remarks from death penalty supporters against those who recognised that the death penalty brings no profit, and one who changed therefore his opinion because of the film. It wasn't these viewer contributions but the opinion of the correspondent - who doesn't believe Cliff really did change, but only was a good actor which shall be typical for psychopaths - that made me thoughtful. The reporter concedes that Cliff tried very hard to change and to get human, but hadn't been successful. I have considered this possibility in some depth, let it get close to me, thought about it very seriously, weighed out the arguments - and I have another opinion. I remain convinced that Cliff's alteration was true; the Cliff whom I knew wasn't the same Cliff anymore who had committed the terrible murders. And the fact he doesn't break out into tears to an unknown reporter when talking about his crimes does not mean he doesn't regret them deeply. [See also these comments about the Frontline documentary by John V. Wilmerding and Eileene Coscolluela.]
I have been asked repeatedly, how I have dealt with the experience of the execution of Cliff. I think I have been very lucky that the nightmares to be expected and emotional problems or even damage didn't come true. Perhaps the reason for this on one hand is the fact I was so realistic that I never had the hope the story would end differently. From the beginning I was clear about the end. On the other hand Cliff did everything he could to make his death as easy as possible for us. If he hadn't seen his death in such a positive and confident way, if he had been despaired and depressive, if he had inwardly struggled and resisted, it would have been much harder for us. I do not regret my friendship with Cliff in any way, and would do everything again if I ever came into that situation again. Nevertheless I have hesitated to write to another prisoner on Death Row for a long time. I didn't want to contribute actively to experiencing such a situation again. My contacts with few of Cliff's friends on Death Row in Huntsville therefore aren't as intensive. From a letter of just one of his friends: "Of all people I've lost in my life, I miss Cliff most of all. Every day I wish he were here to talk to about one thing or another. He was like a brother to me." Yes, I also miss him. Cliff has left his traces also in my life.
Translation: Anja Nieser, John Kinghorn, Sue Fenwick, Gabi Uhl
Any kind of publication of Cliff Boggess' paintings and drawings without explicit prior permission is prohibited.