Texas is known nationally for its frequent use of the death penalty. The state boasts more convicted prisoners put to death than any other state since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1982, accounting for more than one-third of all executions in the nation. Texas governors rarely grant reprieves for the convicted.
However, during his five years as governor, George W. Bush commuted exactly one death sentence, that of Henry Lee Lucas, a supposed serial killer who had been given the death penalty for the 1979 rape and murder of an Austin woman.
With no material evidence, the conviction hinged solely on Lucas’s confession, among 600 or more cases he had eagerly confessed to, which would have made him the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.
Only he wasn’t. (Probably.)
The new Netflix documentary The Confession Killer charts the strange and confusing tale of Lucas, through archival footage and the recollections of journalists and law enforcement officials involved in the multi-year case. San Antonio author Nan Cuba, a former journalist assigned by Life magazine to interview Lucas in 1984, is featured in each of the series’ five episodes.
Cuba appears 26 minutes into the first episode, admitting that at the time she was “terrified” to visit Lucas. She had never been inside a jail before, much less been in close proximity to a brutal killer.
Her interview with Lucas would reveal a childhood rife with brutality wrought upon him by an abusive mother, who once hit him in the head with a two-by-four at age 7 or 8, according to his recollection. Later examination revealed severe brain damage. Lucas would eventually escape his mother, but after returning home murdered her in 1960. He served 10 years for the crime in a Michigan prison and state hospital, a term which included several suicide attempts. He told Cuba that while in prison, he’d studied crime records to learn how to commit crimes, and was determined to kill people when he was freed.
Arrested in 1983 in Georgetown for unlawful possession of a firearm, Lucas confessed to a double murder. Thus began a seemingly endless string of confessions, as Lucas claimed credit for hundreds of unsolved murders across the U.S.
Another journalist featured in the documentary, Hugh Aynesworth of the Dallas Times Herald, was also in close proximity to Lucas at the time. After observing inconsistencies in Lucas’s interviews with law enforcement, Aynesworth became convinced that the confessions were false and the police work shoddy. Aynesworth disagrees with Cuba’s conclusion that Lucas was definitely a serial killer who “could be – probably is – a murderer of many people,” as she subsequently wrote, having further studied Lucas with psychologist Joel Norris, an early profiler of serial killers.
Aynesworth wrote in a rebuttal that Lucas improbably “made veteran and traditionally cynical journalists believe that he could kill 200, 300 or more people and leave not a single clue. The authorities were left with only his word that he had committed the crimes.”
The Confession Killer meticulously charts the confusion and corruption caused by Lucas’s unprecedented string of confessions, portraying Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell as a likely dupe in Lucas’s “massive hoax,” as a Times-Herald headline of the time blared. An article by Aynesworth revealed the hoax, calling into question the resolution of nearly 200 murders cleared by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s special Lucas task force.
At first, Cuba said, she was reluctant to participate in the documentary. “I’m very sensitive about the topic because it’s so easy to misrepresent, and misuse, and sensationalize,” she said. But convinced by Oscar- and Emmy-nominated director Robert Kenner’s conscientious approach, she agreed.
“I told him … I honestly didn’t think that he knew what he was getting into,” she said, “because there’s so many people to talk to and the story is so complex. And there’s so many different versions of how to interpret what happened.”
Cuba’s voice essentially begins and ends the final episode of the miniseries. “With an IQ of 87, [Lucas] was able to convince a thousand law enforcement officers that he was guilty of 200 … crimes,” she says incredulously 1 1/2 minutes into the episode. By the end of the series, viewers confront mounting evidence that it would have been nearly impossible for Lucas to have been such a prolific killer.
At the episode’s conclusion, Cuba sums up by saying, “This really is a story about human nature, about how all of us saw in Henry what we wanted to see. And maybe we did lose sight of the truth.” She defends the embattled leader of the Texas Rangers task force for doing the job he was assigned and for his vigilance in protecting against any potential violence from Lucas as he was interviewed by countless law enforcement officials from around the country.
Though her ultimate conclusion about the case is more measured than Kenner’s, she finds the series “very well-produced,” and appreciates Kenner’s focus on the plight of the family members involved, many of whom still do not know who actually killed their loved ones. Of 20 murder cases reopened since Lucas’s confessions came into question, all have been proved conclusively to have been committed by others. As of the conclusion of the series, the remaining cases have not been reopened. Lucas died in prison in 2001 at age 64.
Soon, Cuba may have her own say. She’s seeking a publisher for her second novel, which will address the Lucas situation as a fictional tragicomedy, based on her own experiences. Her protagonist is named Clayton, not Henry, and the real-life figures involved in the case will function only as “doppelgangers” to her cast of characters, she said.
Cuba worked on the novel during her 2015 Dobie Paisano Fellowship. Coincidentally, her Netflix interviews were taped during the residency, with the fellowship’s ranch house southwest of Austin as a backdrop.
Reflecting on the confluence of the series and her book, she said, “Documentaries are in some ways similar to the way you write a novel, organize a novel. … You don’t know where you’re headed, but you’re after some sort of an understanding about a question that’s been raised.”
Though she believes “you get closer to an emotional truth through fiction,” Cuba said, in this case, the question might be a reflection of how society determines truth.
“Right now in our society to people can see the same thing on the news and we can each see it differently,” Cuba said. “I think it’s the same thing in a microcosm with the Lucas story. It’s so complicated, and people are so passionate about their understanding and their needs about what had to have happened, that we see it different ways. We just see it different ways.”
The Confession Killer premiered on Netflix on Dec. 6, and is available for streaming to subscribers.