Chaplain's past job propels new ministry
The transformation of Carroll Pickett has been literal in at least one
After the bulk of the filming was done for the recently debuted
documentary "At the Death House Door," to which Pickett's apostasy on the
death penalty is central, the 74-year-old former Huntsville chaplain
underwent some long-delayed surgery.
His right arm blasted by tennis and the years, doctors inserted into it a
titanium rod and ball. These add-ons, along with the wire used to stitch
him up after a previous triple-bypass surgery, tend to set off airport
That wouldn't typically be a problem except that the Presbyterian minister
who stood beside 95 condemned Texas prisoners as they were executed
between 1982 and 1995 is at the airport a lot nowadays, riding a circuit
of celebrity in the movement to end the death penalty.
"Bud" Pickett began speaking against it in his soft South Texas twang soon
after his retirement, becoming pariah to some in the prison town of
Huntsville. Pickett throughout his career has undergone little bursts of
celebrity, appearing on "Nightline" and frequently interviewed. The
minister discussed his conversion in a 2002 memoir that subsequently went
But it is the documentary, which premiered to two standing ovations in
March at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin and on the IFC
cable network last month, that has propelled him into an entirely new
Pickett shies away from talk about this blooming profile and curls his
lips at any suggestion that he's an "activist."
"That's just not me," he said on a recent day in a well-appointed office,
falconlike features framed by a head of white hair. "I'm not the kind of
guy that goes around carrying signs."
He may demur, but other death penalty abolitionists say there's no denying
the power of Pickett's message or the hopes they ascribe to him and his
ability to change hardened attitudes toward capital punishment and not
just among liberal lawmakers but here, in Texas, where the death penalty
is at its most prolific.
"He's the central casting character that you'd want to be carrying this
message," said David Dow, a University of Houston law professor and friend
of Pickett who frequently represents death row clients.
"The most important objective that death penalty opponents have to achieve
is to persuade death penalty supporters that the people that are being
executed in the United States are not really animals," Dow said. "I don't
think there's anybody who's better positioned to do that than Carroll
David Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty,
admitted to being a little surprised at the attention accruing to the
Presbyterian minister he sought out at a speech more than a decade ago.
"The unique thing about Carroll Pickett is that he was part of the
system," Atwood said. "And I've always personally felt that people within
the system will be one of the most effective voices in stopping the death
Son of a stern school superintendent, Pickett had typical ministries and a
thriving congregation in Huntsville at the time of the 1974 prison riot
and standoff that resulted in the death of 2 friends and members of his
Another member of his congregation, W.J. Estelle, the prison director,
earlier had requested Pickett's help in ministering to family members of
the hostages. He vowed never to return to the Walls Unit, but assented in
1980, when Estelle asked Pickett to join the roster of chaplains.
In 1982, when Texas resumed executions, Pickett was thrust onto the
execution detail and thus was present for the state's first lethal
injection, of Charlie Brooks Jr. 94 times after that he presided,
including in the execution of Ignacio Cuevas, one of the men involved in
the 1974 standoff killings.
That execution, in 1991, placed Pickett's feelings for revenge against his
already-altering opinion that executions were wrong.
By this point, he said, he had arrived at one of his chief conclusions,
that the death penalty creates victims in almost the same way that the
executed victimized an innocent, radiating outward to fatherless sons or
wardens and guards diminished by the trauma of watching someone die.
Leaning back in his chair on a recent day, he spoke of his own
grandfather's murder that stemmed from a Lampasas pool hall fight. Pickett
didn't find out about it until he was a seminarian in his early 20s, a
private shame and burden borne by the family.
"(Execution) hurts people in so many ways," he said, scratching his
Bill Turner, a longtime Brazos County district attorney and president of
the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, acknowledged a role
that DNA evidence and high-publicity wrongful convictions have had in
changing attitudes toward capital punishment.
"With DNA exonerating some people in the penitentiary system, I believe it
has caused some in the public to recognize that we are not an infallible
system," said Turner, who said he was speaking for himself and not his
Turner said he would apply the death penalty as long as it was in the law
books and said that its practice was becoming more, not less, free from
error as a result of the technological advances. He said he still believed
in a role for the death penalty as a way not merely of making the
community safer, but also of making prisons safe for other prisoners.
A film campaign
A peek at Pickett's At-A-Glance day planner, painted over with
appointments in scrawls normally seen on prescription slips, provides
testimony to the way his and his wife's lives are changing.
"This is one of the fun things," he said, reaching to make a new entry
after agreeing to perform the wedding of a former tennis partner, fitting
it amid his public schedule.
Reared outside Victoria, Pickett is the father of four and remarried. His
wife of 18 years, Jane, a former physical education instructor and
jump-roping enthusiast, shuffled in, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned in
orange with the logo of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago nonprofit that
produced the documentary for IFC.
In the past months, the couple has logged thousands of airplane miles,
with trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and
Washington, jetted to and fro for a massive IFC marketing campaign for the
Lauren Burack, a vice president at IFC, said that as the power of
Pickett's story and presence became apparent, the company decided to jump
in to back it with both feet, making it the biggest documentary promotion
in the history of the Cablevisions Systems-owned network.
The campaign included sending out free kits with the movie to dozens of
religious, school and advocacy groups, which then held viewings, from an
Alaskan anti-death penalty group to the Brooklyn Law School, from a
Congregationalist church in Oklahoma City to an American Civil Liberties
Union meeting in Pittsburgh.
The response has been stark, said Dow, the lawyer, who attended a Houston
"It was in a packed auditorium. I don't think there was a single person in
the room of a couple of hundred who was not powerfully affected," he said.
The film started out in 2005 with the thought of chronicling the work of 2
Chicago Tribune reporters who were reporting on the case of Carlos DeLuna,
executed in 1989 for the 1983 murder of a Corpus Christi gas station
The co-directors, Steve James and Peter Gilbert, were then led to Pickett,
who was at DeLuna's side at the execution and who remains insistent that
he was innocent of the crime.
They ended up with about 250 hours of footage with Pickett in a process
that led to further transformation for Pickett, only part of which spilled
out into the finished product.
"You think about that job description. That's a pretty tough one. We were
amazed that someone would have the capability to sustain himself through
that and come out a whole person," Gilbert said.
Some of Pickett's rawest moments in the film come in audiotapes he kept
secret for years that he made of himself immediately after the executions.
The recordings describe the prisoners' last moments and Pickett's own
His wife calls the tapes "his tears," a purging of the difficult hours he
had just spent.
In one of them, Pickett recalled the last moments of DeLuna, who asked if
he could call Pickett daddy. When the initial flow of chemicals failed to
render DeLuna unconscious, the prisoner looked up at Pickett with big
brown eyes, and Pickett, in the tape, wonders if it was a look of
In another, after Cuevas was executed, Pickett spoke of his urge to punch
Cuevas in the face.
"This was a guy who struggled with this issue for his entire life and
that's why I think he connects to people," Gilbert said.
A new ministry
And so now Pickett has arrived at what he said is his new ministry, to
unburden himself of what he saw over those years and why he thought it was
"I'll go anywhere and speak to anyone," Pickett said.
On this recent day, Pickett was readying for a trip to Washington to speak
to a membership conference of the ACLU, where Supreme Court Justice
Antonin Scalia also was scheduled to appear.
Scalia, in his written opinions, has used strident language to support the
constitutionality of capital punishment, including in a recent opinion
that ended a de facto 9-month national moratorium on the practice.
Pickett shook his head at the justice and put Scalia in the class of
detached politicians and jurists whom he'd like to wheel to the death
house and put beside the gurney, as he had been, with their hand on the
leg of the prisoner, feeling the pulse slow and slip away.
Not many of the officials who speak so loudly for the death penalty ever
came to witness an execution, Pickett said.
"We had 2 attorneys general come by," he said, then assumed a bemused
grin. "Neither of 'em came back."
Pickett acknowledges that it is not Supreme Court justices or attorneys
general who need convincing, and neither is it the type of folks who will
listen to him interviewed on NPR or read his views in the New York Times
or watch his chronicle of doubt on IFC.
Pickett is sensitive to questions about his preaching to the choir. He
rattles off a litany of venues big and small where he's spoken in Texas as
well, from small Lions Club meetings and Methodist church gatherings to a
class at the University of the Incarnate Word.
An execution was scheduled in a few days and he acknowledged that these
would continue apace.
"I can just keep doing what I'm doing," he said, thumbing a paperback copy
of his memoir.
Will the words in his hands and the ones he speaks and are broadcast in
the movie have any effect?
"I live in hope," he said. "We all live in hope."
(source: San Antonio Express-News)
Save Jeff Wood Peter Rothberg
Many of you were among the more than 17,000 outraged citizens who
successfully petitioned Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of
Pardons and Paroles last year demanding the commutation of the death
sentence for Kenneth Foster.
Foster was convicted under Texas' notorious Law of Parties, under which
the distinction between principal actor and accomplice in a crime is
abolished. The law can impose the death penalty on anybody involved in a
crime where a murder occurred whether a person had anything to do with the
murder or not. (Texas is the only state that applies this statute in
capital cases, making it the only place in the United States where a
person can be factually innocent of murder and still face the death
Now, Jeff Wood faces similar straits on Texas death row with an execution
date of August 21. Having no prior criminal record, Wood was convicted and
sentenced to die for killing a convenience store clerk during a January
1996 robbery in Kerrville, TX under the "Law of Parties." Wood was not the
shooter in this case and he can reasonably claim that he had no idea that
a murder would occur during what he says was meant to be a gas station
robbery. The actual shooter in this case — Daniel Earl Reneau — was
executed by the state of Texas more than 6 years ago.
Here are the facts:
At approximately 6:00 am on January 2, 1996, while Wood waited outside in
a car, Daniel Earl Reneau entered the gas station with a gun and pointed
it at Kris Keeran, the clerk standing behind the counter. At some point
for some reason Reneau fired 1 shot with a 22 caliber handgun that struck
Keeran between the eyes. Death was almost instantaneous. Continuing with
the robbery, Reneau went into the back office and took a safe. When
hearing the shot, Wood got out of the car to see what happened. Reneau
then ordered Wood, at gun point, to get the surveillance video and to
drive the getaway-car. Both men were arrested separately within 24 hours
and gave confessions to the police. Wood, however, was forced into
interrogation by the police with no attorney present and says he was kept
awake the entire time and eventually broke down saying it was a planned
robbery. He later revoked this statement.
Ask Governor Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Wood's
sentence and sign an online petition to stop the execution. I happen to be
opposed to capital punishment in all instances but from any humane
perspective state-sponsored killing of people we know did not commit
murder should be way beyond the pale.
(source: Peter Rothberg, The Nation)