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Jeff Ferguson was ready.
Although still holding out hope for a commutation of his death sentence, he had long accepted that his time was coming, probably sooner than later.
“So every day, he would try to be more prepared than he was the day before,” said Lisa Boyd, who visited Mr. Ferguson in prison and produced a short documentary film that touched on his radical conversion on death row.
Mr. Ferguson, who was Catholic, was executed on March 26, 2014, for the Feb. 22, 1989, abduction, rape and murder of Kelli Hall in suburban St. Louis.
Deeply remorseful for what he had done, he spent nearly a quarter-century ministering to and mentoring his fellow residents, along with visitors and staff of the Potosi Correctional Center.
Mrs. Boyd could see that a place was being prepared for him.
“It’s been my mission through my friendship with Jeff and ultimately with Kelli’s father, Jim Hall, to understand the importance of being ready not just for whatever will happen today — but being ready to be the best person you can be in the present moment,” she said.
Her latest cinematic offering, a feature-length documentary set to premiere on Good Friday over online streaming services, focuses on the providential chain of events that led up to the fulfillment of Mr. Ferguson’s dying wish.
Namely, that his victim’s family would forgive him in this life.
“It’s about the healing power of transformation and forgiveness,” Mrs. Boyd said of the production, titled “An American Tragedy.”
“I’ve been a Christian my whole life,” she noted. “But to witness such a transformation on all sides and see God’s work happening right in front of my eyes was simply amazing.”
Restoration and hope
Mrs. Boyd, and independent filmmaker, and her husband — director, producer and cinematographer David R. Boyd — are based in Los Angeles, but Mrs. Boyd grew up in southern Missouri.
She met Jeffrey Ferguson in 2012 while visiting the Potosi prison with her uncle and his Christian biker gang, The Sons of Thunder, to interview men on death row.
Mr. Ferguson was scheduled to be executed the following day, but it wound up getting delayed.
Those interviews would eventually become part of the Boyds’ first short documentary film, the award-winning “POTOSI: God in Death Row.”
Mr. Ferguson invited the couple back for another visit shortly before his execution date two years later.
The warden let them spend hours conversing.
“Jeffrey shared so much about his experience, his life, the crime, his daughters, the family, and how deeply sad he was that he had committed the crime,” Mrs. Boyd recalled.
He spoke of his efforts to practice his faith and become the best man he could be in prison, in order to offset some of the harm he had caused.
“He shared with me how he helped his ‘cellies’ begin to forgive themselves for the crimes they had committed,” said Mrs. Boyd.
He would tell them: “You cannot move forward and ask for forgiveness if you have not forgiven yourself.”
“That was his mission in the prison,” Mrs. Boyd noted. “To bring restoration and hope.”
Mr. Ferguson also revealed his own solemn prayer that Kelli Hall’s family could find the grace to forgive him before he died.
That day, Mrs. Boyd set about contacting every source she could think of who might be able to help Mr. Ferguson get in touch with the Hall family.
She had no success.
In the meantime, Mr. Ferguson asked if she would consider attending his execution.
When she said it would be more than she could handle, he asked if she would attend his funeral.
That she could do.
From death to new life
Mr. Fergusson’s was to be Missouri’s fifth execution in five months.
As with all executions that came before, the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) joined in filing a petition, asking the governor to commute Mr. Ferguson’s sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole.
The request was denied.
The MCC commented on Mr. Ferguson’s execution in that week’s Friday update:
“Hooked on drugs and alcohol at the time he murdered Kelli Hall in 1989, he spent the last two decades in prison as a model inmate. Ferguson had devoted himself to making the prison a compassionate, safer environment for staff and guards. He helped establish a hospice program for dying inmates, he worked with the prison restorative justice program, helping crime victims to heal, and he provided spiritual guidance through the prison ministry program to inmates, some of whom would one day return to society.
“... He had earned the respect and trust of both staff and inmates,” the MCC continued, noting that the prison’s chaplain had written in a clemency letter: “If Jeff were to be released, I would not have a problem with him living next door to me.”
Mrs. Boyd flew into St. Louis the night before the funeral when out of the blue, she got an email from Steven Hall, who was Kelli’s brother.
Mr. Hall had been searching his sister’s name on the Internet and found reference to the Boyds’ film, “POTOSI: God in Death Row.”
He wanted to see it.
“I emailed him back and met with him the next morning before going to Jeffrey’s funeral,” she recalled.
Mrs. Boyd brought him a copy the next morning and wound up visiting with him and his mother, Sue.
“I told them about the wish Jeff had that his victim’s family would forgive him,” Mrs. Boyd recalled.
She left soon thereafter for the funeral but got a call 10 minutes later from Kelli’s father, Jim Hall.
Mrs. Boyd went back and spent about 45 minutes conversing with him before hurrying to the funeral.
There, she became acquainted with Mr. Ferguson’s daughters and his sister-in-law.
Then she headed back to the home of Jim Hall, who had watched the copy of “POTOSI” she had brought for his family.
“He broke down and said he wished he had seen this before the execution,” said Mrs. Boyd. “Because he now saw Jeffrey Ferguson as a human being, not as the monster who killed his daughter 26 years before — and that he would have fought to save Jeffrey’s life.”
That experience changed Mrs. Boyd forever.
“I saw the world lift from his shoulders,” she said. “Seeing Jim go from having so much anger to literally, physically lighting up right in front of me — it just validated my faith in God, 2,000-fold.”
Doors wide open
Mrs. Boyd had promised Mr. Ferguson to share his story in any way she could.
The intermediate result would be the production of “An American Tragedy,” with its growing circle of participants.
Jim Hall had kept a collection of news clippings and TV segments he had recorded on VHS tapes throughout Mr. Ferguson’s trial.
These provided invaluable information for the new documentary.
One morning, Mrs. Boyd went to photograph the place where Kelli Hall died.
She found the tree that marked the place, wrapped in a misty halo, illuminated by the sun.
“Not a rainbow but a halo,” Mrs. Boyd pointed out. “It was as if Kelli was there, letting me know that she’s okay.”
Jim Hall died before the film’s release.
Mrs. Boyd is convinced that he, his daughter and the man who took her life, having hopefully been reconciled to God and each other in heaven, approve of the finished product.
She also believes that she has done what God needed her to do: Get out of the way and let Him do His work.
“The doors kept opening,” she stated with awe. “And when God opens a door, you have to walk through it, because that’s why He opened it.”
Mrs. Boyd has befriended Jeffrey Ferguson’s daughter, Jennifer.
“She’s a very courageous woman to go through everything she went through as a child, as a teen-ager, as an adult and as a mom,” said Mrs. Boyd, “and then to be interviewed for the film and say what she said — she’s a very dynamic and powerful woman.”
“A lot of power”
“An American Tragedy” recently landed top honors at the St. Louis International Film Festival and at other festivals.
Mrs. Boyd hopes the accolades will help spread the story.
“All of this has cemented my belief. I’m a lifer!” she said. “And I’m truly humbled. How can you not believe in God, when miracles are being revealed right in front of you?
“I got to see the transformation of the Hall family,” she said. “I got to see the transformation of Jim Hall. I got to see Jeff’s last wish.
“And with my own eyes, I got to see Kelli’s father and Jeff’s daughter meet up in the same cemetery.”
Mrs. Boyd’s next step is to produce a full-length feature film about the story for national distribution.
She is adamant that it will be true to facts and, more importantly, true to God.
She has reaffirmed her intention to live her own life in the same manner.
“You know, by getting out of the way and letting it all fall into place, I recognized Christ at work right in front of me,” she said.
“There’s a lot of power in this story,” she added. “Redemption, forgiveness and resurrection.”