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Inside the making of 'The Hunt for the Texas 7'

"I see victims on both sides," says the Stuart Clarke, director for a documentary on the Texas 7  case.  Read Clarke's interview after the MSNBC premiere.
Image: Stuart Clarke
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"The Hunt for the Texas 7" is a documentary on the most audacious prison escape in U.S. history. Seven inmates broke out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Connally Unit in December 2000 by overpowering some workers there, stealing their clothes and breaking into the prison armory to get guns.

Two weeks after the break, the fugitives shot and killed policeman Aubrey Hawkins during the robbery of a sporting goods store that netted them $70,000, more guns and the IDs of employees.

A month after Hawkins' murder, four of the prisoners were captured at a trailer park outside Colorado Springs, Colo. A fifth escapee, Larry Harper, killed himself as police closed in. Two others surrendered two days later.

George Rivas, Randy Halprin, Donald Newbury, Joseph Garcia and Patrick Murphy all currently sit on death row. Michael Rodriguez dropped all appeals and volunteered for lethal injection. He was executed in August 2008.

The documentary, which aired late September on MSNBC, was directed by Stuart Clarke of Wild Dream Films, a film and television production company based in the United Kingdom. MSNBC took a few moments to talk with Stuart about the making of the film.  

MSNBC: You dedicated your film to Jayne Hawkins, Aubrey Hawkin's mother. Why?

STUART CLARKE, DIRECTOR, "THE HUNT FOR THE TEXAS SEVEN":Jayne Hawkins was the first interview we shot for the documentary. It was a very moving moment for me personally when she broke down in tears. I don’t think anyone can actually understand what it is like to lose a child. If it hasn’t happened to them personally—the pain and suffering that Jayne must have felt is beyond words.

Like so many victims of crime I have previously interviewed for documentaries, there is a common thread: they feel like no one listens to them. Jayne said to me that the prisoners had their time and say in court, but she didn’t. It was important for her to tell her story and that is why she took part in the documentary. This film allowed Jayne to say what it is like to be a silent victim of murder. It seemed appropriate that when she died, we should dedicate the film to her.

MSNBC: Who do you see as the heroes and the villains of this tale?

STUART: This is a very difficult question. I see victims on both sides.

MSNBC:  What caused you to want to tell this story?

STUART: I saw a clip of the story on the BBC News which stuck in the back of mind about the capture of the last two men. You must remember that in the U.K., we are fascinated by how the U.S. deals with crime and punishment. So I thought, ‘Wow what a great story’ and I thought this would make an amazing film. I decided I had to make it with or without an involvement of a broadcaster.

MSNBC: Did you run into any problems getting cooperation from authorities in interviewing the Texas 7?

STUART: The authorities were fantastic in letting us film especially the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. You must remember we do not have the same sort of access in the U.K. to prisoners as U.S. filmmakers. It was both a scary and intriguing process when I interviewed four of the men on death row. At the time there were six living members of the Texas 7 on death row (Larry Harper later committed suicide).

Only four men agreed to be filmed. It was a shame we could not get the other two. One of the men wanted us to pay $10,000 but under U.S. law, the men cannot profit from their crimes so we could not entertain this idea. The last man did not want to take part, this was Michael Rodriguez. He was executed in August this year and had confessed his guilt. One interesting observation to make when filming on death row is the limited time they allow you. We had only 30 minutes with each man. I wish we could have had longer.

MSNBC:  Do you hold the Texas justice system partly culpable? In the film, you seem to imply that the harsh sentences caused the seven to escape in the first place?

STUART: That is also a very difficult question. One of the Texas 7 makes a very strong statement when he says that "We all make mistakes." I think if you have a society which doesn’t accept this aspect of human behavior then you have a problem. Can you imagine making a mistake and having to pay for it all your life? Yes, these men were hardened criminals and if you "can't do the time, don’t do the crime" but the ‘"three strikes and you're out" policy does seem harsh and final.

What is certain, if you believe the men, is they had no hope. If you take hope anyway from anyone, then the stakes are much higher and they had nothing to lose. It would be good to know what the audience feels about the prisoners after seeing the film and whether they thought their sentences were excessive.

MSNBC:  What in telling this story did you find the most surprising?

STUART: There were so many elements I found surprising. The first is the Law of Parties. I would say that 9 people out of 10 in the U.K. would not know anything about this particular U.S. law. At least one of the men did not fire at the police officer, some of the other men claim they didn’t shoot him also, but they are all grouped together as killers.

In an extreme example, if someone told me that they would kill a particular person on a certain date, and they do the murder, I would be on death row with them because I was party to the crime. Now that is a very scary concept. You are no longer in control of your own fate.

I also found the calmness of George Rivas and his candor when he talks about shooting the officer surprising.

But the biggest surprise to me is that they stayed together.

MSNBC: One question our MSNBC viewers have is "Why did all stay together?" Was there a band of brothers mentality that evolved or were they just not so smart? 

STUART: This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the case. I had spoken with some criminologists during the research and it is very unusual a group of escapees would stay together. And by staying together, they were more organized. This must be the key reason they stayed together. At the time of their arrests, the group was falling apart, but I believe that it was George Rivas who kept them together as a gang; he is a very smart man.

I do think some members weren’t that smart and were easily led. When they killed the officer, panic set in. Rivas would have told the gang exactly what to do so I think they were running scared. Remember, in prison, the men are already being told what to do and are controlled. Maybe it was "easier" for them to be told what to do by George Rivas.  

MSNBC: The escape itself was it due to a fault in the Texas prison system or just a great plan? 

STUART: I don’t think it would be fair to blame the prison system. Sure certain things weren’t as tight as they maybe should have been, but it was an audacious plan which they pulled off. They were highly motivated, organized and focused. I guess they had a lot of time on their hands to really think through the plan.

Interestingly, the men were very keen to tell me that it would have been easy to hurt the prison guards during the escape but they decided not to do this and they even claim they provided water for the guards whilst they held them. It was amazing that the men had no guns, but managed to disarm the prison officers. I find it fascinating how George Rivas believes a "higher power" allowed him to disarm the control tower officer.

Also, can you imagine how they managed to build a false bottom to the prison truck and hide some of the men inside,  stuffed with rifles? So it must surely be one of the best prison escape plans in American history.

MSNBC: The murder of police officer, Aubrey Hawkins, seems particularly unnecessarily and brutal. How do you explain that? Was it sort of a murder frenzy?

STUART: Yes, it was brutal and cold-blooded. Standing at the place he was murdered (some would say assassinated), was very chilling. If you believe George Rivas' story, he had no intention of killing Officer Hawkins. When he did a similar crime like this in the past, he had managed to take the gun away from a security guard and use his handcuffs to disable him.

But Rivas believed Aubrey went for his gun and shot him in the shoulder to stop him firing. But when the remaining men came out and heard gun shots, obviously they didn’t want to be captured and opened fire indiscriminately. This was brutal and I’m sure a number of the men got caught up in the crime. I know a number of the men denied shooting Officer Hawkins.

I would have liked to ask Michael Rodriguez if he did shoot the officer at point blank range in the head a number of times. Did they all shoot Officer Hawkins though? I’m not sure they did.

MSNBC: It’s clear that some of the seven got shot in the shootout with Hawkins, most likely shooting each other.  How did they get help for their gun shot wounds? 

STUART: I believe George Rivas actually got some of the other men to get supplies from a drug store. I think Rivas actually removed a bullet from his stomach and he stated to us in his interview for the film that he attended to his own gunshot wounds at a motel after the Oshman’s robbery. I think he also tended to Randy Halprins' wounds but can’t be certain about this. But it shows you that Rivas is a very clever man.

MSNBC: Will any of remaining five of the Texas 7 win their appeals of their death sentences? 

STUART: That’s a difficult question to answer as a law enforcement officer died in Texas. I can’t imagine the system would let the men walk away from the death penalty, can you? If the film can do one thing, it is to try and give the public the facts to the story so they can decide for themselves. Were these men monsters as they were depicted in the U.S. press? I don’t believe all the men deserve to be on death row. They had no choice; no hope for rehabilitation. They made a decision to escape and now have to suffer the consequences.

MSNBC: Thank you.