When the state of Missouri executed Jeffrey Ferguson in 2014 for the murder of 17-year-old Kelli Hall in 1989, Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference stated that “society doesn’t gain anything by his execution. He’s not the same man he was 24 years ago.”
Filmmaker Lisa Boyd’s movie “An American Tragedy” expands on that statement. The movie explores the crime Ferguson committed, the pain it caused, the redemption that Linhardt cited and an unlikely act of forgiveness.
Fighting against his own anger and after years of inner rage, Jim Hall forgave his daughter’s killer.
Hall attended a screening of “An American Tragedy,” subtitled “One Man’s Journey to Death, Another Man’s Journey to Forgive,” on July 22 at Washington University of St. Louis, part of the 18th Annual St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase presented by the nonprofit Cinema St. Louis. Boyd addressed the audience afterward, calling Hall up to the stage along with Ferguson’s daughter, Jennifer, and several others who appeared in the documentary.
Near the end of the film, Hall and Jennifer Ferguson are shown conversing about their losses while visiting Valhalla Cemetery in St. Louis County, where both Hall’s daughter and Ferguson’s father are buried.
Prior to the screening, Hall said that for the first 10 years after the murder he blamed God, adding that “we went through hell” after the murder of “daddy’s little girl.” But, he noted, “I think God and my daughter pushed me into going back to church.”
He was conflicted about feeling good about the death penalty given to Ferguson while knowing that it’s also murder, and he explored how God would want him to think about it.
He went to the execution feeling elated. But the next day he started feeling depressed and realized the execution accomplished nothing. In the film, he stated that he was moved by seeing the pain the execution caused Jeffrey Ferguson’s daughters. He remains against the death penalty with a few exceptions such as the murder of a police officer.
God asks people to forgive, Hall said. “Until we do, it won’t be lifted off our hearts. The only way I could feel free again, like a good person, I had to forgive him. That doesn’t mean I’m not mad at him, that I’m not angry with him, but I do forgive him.”
Jeffrey Ferguson’s accomplice, Kenneth Ousley, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Hall and other family members attend his parole hearings to urge that Ousley be kept in prison. “That’s what I wish Jeffrey Ferguson had been given — life, no freedom,” Hall said. “Never to do it again. The last years of his life he was teaching other inmates to pass GED (exams), he was working in the hospice program. The man turned his life around and he became a good person. The other 30-something years, not so much.”
Deacon Andy Daus of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Parish, a volunteer with the Criminal Justice Ministry, began visiting inmates at the Potosi Correctional Center in 2007. At the prison, death-row inmates are mainstreamed into the prison population, and Ferguson was the internal activities coordinator’s clerk. He was the contact for the volunteers and provided helpful advice. Ferguson regularly attended Catholic services and programs, Deacon Daus said, and gave tips on how to increase attendance. He also helped start a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program.
“We try to go for restorative justice,” Deacon Daus said. “And from what I could see, Jeff was a changed man. He was restored. And then they killed him. What a waste. He was a leader in that community. He was making a difference to other inmates in prison.”
Troy Steele, retired warden of the Potosi Correctional Center, said Jeffrey Ferguson, as an inmate, “was a heck of a guy. He had a good sense of humor, was a guy who had a lot of involvement in the prison.”
Jeffrey Ferguson’s role in the hospice program “was huge. … He truly gave of himself for those guys who didn’t have anybody else and were going to die in that facility.”
George Lombardi, retired director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said Jeffrey Ferguson’s activities in the prison, working hard to make amends, made a difference in the peace and tranquility of the prison.
Mike Harvey, the lead investigator on the case for the St. Charles Police Department, wouldn’t provide his views on the death penalty but said that Jeffrey Ferguson obviously changed and that seeing his daughters at the execution “broke my heart.”
Some people view the death penalty as retribution, said Deacon Daus, who researched the topic in a course at Aquinas Institute of Theology. “That’s God’s thing. That isn’t something we do here,” Deacon Daus said.
>> A filmmaker’s take
Filmmaker Lisa Boyd initially interviewed death-row inmate Jeffrey Ferguson while making “Potosi: God in Death Row,” shot at the Potosi Correctional Center where Ferguson was being held. Family members of Ferguson’s victim watched that film at the time of Ferguson’s funeral, and that prompted the forgiveness they expressed for the killer, Boyd said.
“It was in seeing Jeff in his reformed state, a redeemed man, that they were able to forgive him,” Boyd said. “And that was Jeff’s last wish in the interview I had with him, that God watch over his family and for Kelli Hall’s family to forgive him.”
Boyd said she hopes “An American Tragedy,” honors both the victim and condemned man’s family. She was in awe of a shot she made of the tree near where Kelli Hall’s body was found, with a halo forming around the tree when the sun burst through a fog. “It’s Kelli talking to me,” Boyd said.
Programs such as the ones in the Missouri prisons that allow people to transform their lives are vital, she said. And the state’s policy of allowing inmates condemned to death to interact in the prison population is rare and innovative, she added, allowing them to become better people.
People can change, said Boyd, who was raised in a Protestant church in southern Missouri but now attends a Catholic church in southern California. “I had that experience not only with Jeff but the three other inmates I interviewed” who had death sentences.
The men she interviewed were recommended to her by the Sons of Thunder, a motorcycle gang who minister to men condemned to death. “It changed my perspective about men on the inside and about incarceration,” she said. “I truly believe if you put someone in a place where they can learn a new way of thinking it is possible for them to become a new person.”
“An American Tragedy” will return as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1-11. Visit www.cinemastlouis.org later as details of the festival are announced.
Additional screenings and a distributor for the documentary film are being sought. For more information, visit www.americantragedyfilm.com.
>> Church teaching
In 2014, the Catholic bishops of Missouri issued a statement explaining their consistent opposition to the use of the death penalty. Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the bishops stated that “this ultimate penalty promotes a culture of death and undermines respect for human life, the dignity of the human person, the conditions for the common good, and definitively removes from the offender the possibility of redeeming himself.”
At the same time the bishops reiterated and affirmed their support for and solidarity with the families and loved ones of murder victims.
“As we bear witness to the Gospel message of Christ, we call for a new response to violence that upholds the sacredness of all human life,” the bishops stated.
For the full statement, visit www.stlouisreview.com/juj.