The Death Penalty Has a Face: A DA’s Personal Story

During my years as a district attorney, I have sought the death penalty. But does the state need to take a life to make a point?
Mon March 18, 2013 7:30 am
Clifford Holt Boggess was condemned to death for the murder of Frank Collier in 1986. Boggess sat on death row for more than a decade before being executed on June 11, 1998.
Courtesy of Tim Cole

I remember feeling a little nervous when the heavy door leading to Death Row clanged shut behind me. I didn’t really know what I would see. Having never walked the concrete corridors of a Texas prison, or any other for that matter, I didn’t know at the time that it was very much the same as any other cell block. Inmates stepped aside as we passed, eyes down, in their place behind a yellow line painted along the edge of the floor. I assumed it was prison protocol for any “suits” on the unit—outsiders important enough to be escorted through the cell block by an assistant warden. But I never asked.

It was the fall of 1990. Barely two years after graduating from law school I fell into a position as criminal law advisor and counsel to Governor William Clements as he neared the end of his last term in the office. Even though I never met the governor during the six months of my employment, I thought the position would fit nicely into my plan to return to my North Texas hometown in Montague County to run for district attorney. I was 31—and ambitious. I had been sent to Huntsville as the governor’s representative to witness a scheduled execution, but it was delayed. As we waited, the warden was more than pleased to show me around. I was “with the governor’s office.” Technically, almost his boss. Or close enough to make him very accommodating.  The red carpet treatment was a bit heady. The respect was more for the office than me, but it had its perks. Visiting the country’s—maybe the world’s—most active death chamber was one. It should have been a solemn occasion, but to be honest I recall very little of it. Except the part where I visited Death Row.

Near the end of the tour I mentioned to the warden that I actually knew someone on the Row: Clifford Holt Boggess, who was condemned to death for the murder of Frank Collier in July, 1986. I grew up in Saint Jo, a small North Texas town close to the Oklahoma border where Collier ran an old-fashioned family grocery store. It’s one of those places where everyone knows each other, and though I was a few years older than Boggess, I knew him. I knew his family. He knew mine. I probably had been in his home at some point as a child. At one point Boggess had worked a part-time high school job at the local newspaper owned and operated by my family. I never thought much about him after that. Until he murdered Collier and another man in nearby Grayson County in a three-week span of violence and became the only person in the modern era of the state’s death penalty from Montague County to be sentenced to die.

I still don’t understand why I did this, but I asked to see him. The cell was on the upper tier. Condemned prisoners on both sides of the cell block stood to look or stopped doing whatever condemned prisoners do to pass the time as I climbed the bare metal steps. The warden pointed out the cell and said something to the prisoner. “You have a visitor,” or “Someone is here to see you,” or something equally forgettable.

I quickly realized I had nothing to say to Boggess. He looked pretty much the same as I remembered. Short red hair. Glasses. I explained to him that I was working for the governor’s office and that’s how I wound up at Death Row. Unable to think of anything better, I simply asked how he was doing. “I’m okay,” Boggess said. “For someone on death row.” And that was all. Uncomfortable and with nothing more to say, I turned and left.

Eight years later, after I became the district attorney of Montague County, I received a letter from Death Row. Boggess wanted to choose the date upon which he would be executed. And I honored his request—he died June 11, 1998, his thirty-third birthday.

I guess little towns are pretty much the same everywhere. Saint Jo was no exception. There was one public school campus. The high school and junior high were both housed in a three-story dark brick structure built sometime in the 1800s. One year the beginning of the spring semester was delayed after the basement boiler that delivered heat to all the cast iron radiators in the building blew up. The “air conditioning” came from the breeze blowing through the open classroom windows.

Downtown was called “the square.” At its center stood an ominous looking wishing well covered by a metal grate, and a few park benches where old men whittled on sticks of wood. Some of them would retire to the domino hall every afternoon to gamble and drink whiskey, or so said the rumor mill. Over the years various businesses on the square came and went, but the cornerstones were the locally owned and operated bank and the little newspaper and printing shop run by my mom and dad. The bank, now a branch of a much larger institution, and the newspaper are still there. My parents, now 83, continue to turn out the same little newspaper every week. Technology and the Internet have found their way to Saint Jo, I suppose. You just can’t tell by looking at it.

Collier’s Grocery Store sat a half block north of the square, across the street from city hall and the tiny police station. Frank Collier was one of those perennially old men. At least he always looked old to us kids. But, then, most adults did. Neither he nor the grocery store changed much over the years. All the kids in town knew we could go there with a couple of soda bottles to trade for a few cents or some candy. The store had two aisles of wood shelves with rows of dusty canned goods. There was a small counter in the back

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