His Life With the Deaths That the State Carried Out
A lonely field of concrete crosses, engraved with dates and numbers and
surrounded by weeds, is the first thing a viewer sees in the film "At the
Death House Door." Some of the graves in that field belong to inmates who
were executed by the state at the prison in Huntsville, Tex.
Walking tenderly among those crosses is the Rev. Carroll Pickett, the
laconic, soft-spoken prison chaplain for 15 years and witness to 95
executions. The documentary, which will be shown Thursday night on the
Independent Film Channel, reveals that Mr. Pickett, a 74-year-old
Presbyterian minister, was anguished by his job, and that he finally
concluded that the death penalty served neither justice nor morality. He
says he believes that some of the men he helped lead to death were
"After each execution I made a tape on everybody that I walked with to the
death chamber," Mr. Pickett says early in the film as the camera trains on
his office, full of boxes of cassette tapes. "I knew I had to talk to
somebody, and the only thing in my house at that time was a tape
Of all those executions, he was most haunted by that of Carlos De Luna,
convicted of stabbing to death a gas station clerk in Corpus Christi,
Tex., in 1983. Mr. De Luna asked if he could call the minister Daddy on
the day in 1989 when, at 27, he was executed despite his protestations of
innocence. 2 reporters for The Chicago Tribune wrote a series of articles
in 2006 that made a case that Mr. De Luna was wrongfully convicted. Mr.
Pickett said he believes that Mr. De Luna was innocent, and the minister's
relationship with the condemned man is a focus of the film.
Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the director and cinematographer of the
1994 high school basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams," are the
co-directors of "At the Death House Door," which they hope will renew
debate about the death penalty.
In April the United States Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's method of
capital punishment by lethal injection. "At the Death House Door" had its
premiere in March at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Tex.,
and has received laudatory reviews, winning awards at the Atlanta Film
Festival and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C.
"It's the kind of film we gravitate to, letting one person's story tell
you about a much bigger issue," Mr. Gilbert said in an interview.
Their film started out as a Tribune editor's idea to chronicle the
investigation of Mr. De Lunas case, articles that were written by the
Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. But after the
filmmakers met the quietly charismatic Mr. Pickett and listened to some of
his tapes, they said, they decided that the minister would be the
heartbeat of a film that they hoped would be as poetic as it is polemical.
The divisive issue of capital punishment has a new urgency because the
high courts Kentucky decision means that many more inmates might be
executed in coming months. The Death Penalty Information Center, a
research and advocacy group that campaigns against executions, recently
put the death row census at 3,263.
Of all the states Texas began May with the most people scheduled for
execution, five, between June 3 and Aug. 20 in the Walls Unit, the state
prison unit where Mr. Pickett worked. There he prayed with the death-row
inmates, listened to their beliefs about death and the afterlife, and
watched as the lethal drugs flowed into their veins.
"I never sat in judgment," Mr. Pickett said during a recent interview in
New York, part of a national tour to promote the film. "I believed
everybody needed to die with a friend. I felt that God had called me to be
at the prison."
The white-haired Mr. Pickett said that his tenure from 1980 to 1995 as a
prison chaplain made it easier to face his own death. For years, he said,
he believed that capital punishment was just because of his own
grandfather's murder and the 1974 prison siege in Huntsville, which killed
2 of Mr. Pickett's parishioners.
"It was a process," he said of his conversion to opposing the death
penalty. "I began to see the system wasn't working properly." He said the
executions did not bring closure to anyone, did not deter crime and that
the sentences were unevenly applied.
"What does it accomplish?" he said. "There is a better way."
Mr. Pickett's audiotapes some of which are heard in the film bear
witness to the small, often mundane details of the deaths he witnessed.
Who watched the prisoner die? What did he say? What was his last meal? How
did he react to the drugs that ended his life?
The film also includes interviews with Mr. Pickett's family members, who
talk about the impact of his work; tracks the Tribune investigation; and
includes the opinions of prison employees and of Rose Rhoton, Mr. De
Ms. Rhoton grieves over her inability to help her brother as she recalls
their hardscrabble childhood and a promise to their mother to look out for
"And by Carlos going through this, I made myself a promise that I wasn't
going to be this uneducated Mexican person," Ms. Rhoton says in the film.
"And that pushed me to better my life."
IFC contacted audiences interested in both sides of the death penalty
debate and provided them with DVDs of the documentary and a discussion
guide. There have been dozens of gatherings organized by the American
Civil Liberties Union, in church communities and on college campuses,
according to Erik Batt, an IFC spokesman. "People were moved to tears,"
said Rosalyn Park, a staff lawyer at the Advocates for Human Rights in St.
Paul, a nonprofit organization that hosted a recent screening with the
Innocence Project of Minnesota and a Catholic church.
Still, Mr. Pickett said that in his speaking engagements since the film
has been screened, he meets people who believe capital punishment is
right. "A lot of people think it's a deterrent, he said.
Whether "At the Death House Door" ends up mostly playing to the converted
is an open question. But Ms. Park and Robin Phillips, the executive
director of Advocates for Human Rights, said it reminds audiences,
whatever their viewpoint, that hundreds of imprisoned people are waiting
Mr. De Luna has the last words in the film.
"I want to say that I hold no grudges," reads a declaration on the screen.
"I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the
faith and don't give up."
(source: New York Times)