Quiet death penalty activist goes public—-Documentary explores topic
through eyes of retired pastor
Carroll Pickett is an unlikely activist against the death penalty. The
retired Presbyterian pastor is 74, soft-spoken and gentle of spirit. A
native Texan, he grew up in a conservative household, the grandson of a
He grew up believing in the death penalty. The deaths of two of his
parishioners in a 1974 riot at the state prison in Huntsville did nothing
to soften his disposition toward criminals. Pickett, then the pastor of a
church in Huntsville, said yes when he was asked in 1979 to become
chaplain at the Walls Unit, ministering to death row inmates in their
That was the beginning of what Pickett, who retired from the prison in
1995 and now lives outside Houston, calls the "process." Gradually, he
came to believe the system is unfair and that innocent people have died,
sometimes painfully, in "botched executions."
We get to know Pickett in At the Death House Door, a sobering documentary
that airs tonight on IFC.
Pickett's job, as the warden explained it to him, was to earn the inmates'
trust and keep them calm so the executions could proceed smoothly. Even
before his stance toward capital punishment changed, seeing men put to
death, standing beside them, sometimes reaching out to comfort them as
lethal drugs flowed into their veins, weighed on Pickett.
He was particularly moved by the death of one man, Carlos De Luna, 27, who
had been convicted of stabbing to death a gas station attendant in Corpus
Christi. De Luna, who was raised without a father, asked if he could call
Pickett "daddy." Pickett came to believe De Luna was innocent.
De Luna's execution was one of the botched ones. It took many more minutes
than it's supposed to take. The first drug injected into his veins failed
to put him to sleep. With the 2nd drug, the painful fatal drug, coursing
through his veins, De Luna raised his head twice and looked into Pickett's
eyes. He tried to speak but couldn't.
"I can still see Carlos," Pickett says, speaking in Austin where the movie
premiered in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival. "I still see
Carlos raising up his head when the drugs didn't work. I can still hear
Carlos calling me 'Dad,' and I can still hear Carlos saying he didn't do
it, still hear Carlos explaining exactly what took place that night. He
said he was not in the place, and I believe him."
A stoic man, Pickett didn't seek counseling. He never even spoke to his
children about his feelings.
"And we're a close family," he says.
Instead, Pickett spoke into a tape recorder.
After each execution, he would go into his office and, in a soft,
dispassionate drawl, record what he witnessed. Then he would put the tape
Ninety-five tapes. Over 15 years. Tapes that no one was supposed to know
Because of the process of change, however, when two Chicago Tribune
reporters who were investigating the death penalty approached Pickett in
2005, he agreed to see them. They also believed De Luna was innocent.
"I found out these were 2 honorable people," he says. Pickett researched
the reporters, Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, on the Internet. He spoke
to lawyer friends. He decided to cooperate with them.
"I thought that maybe this is what God intended for me to do," he says.
The minister allowed them to listen to the tape he made the night of De
Luna's execution. And that began another process, which involved 2
filmmakers, Steve James and Peter Gilbert, who previously had made the
acclaimed Hoop Dreams, getting involved. It took more than a month of
talking before Pickett agreed to participate.
Gradually, Pickett has become a quiet activist, giving talks and lobbying
politicians in an effort to end capital punishment. The movie, however, is
something else altogether, a very public coming out for such a private
"I don't know what it's going to be like," he says softly, sitting in the
lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel on the day of the premiere, a cross pin
on the lapel of his dark suit. Soon he would launch a nationwide publicity
tour, but on this day he sounds nervous.
"I've never seen the movie with a crowd," he says. "My kids have never
(source: Houston Chronicle)