Rev. Carroll Pickett: The evolution of a death penalty opponent
For 15 years, the Rev. Carroll Pickett was a witness to state-sanctioned
death. As a prison chaplain in Hunstville, he presided over 95 executions.
After each one, Mr. Pickett recorded his thoughts on tape. The documentary
At the Death House Door chronicles his anguish as he eventually concludes
that some of the men he led to death were innocent.
Dallas Morning News editorial writer Colleen McCain Nelson interviewed Mr.
Pickett via e-mail this week:
You witnessed dozens of executions as prison chaplain. Why did you feel
called to do that job?
At the Death House Door
At the Death House Door will be screened at 7 tonight at the Angelika Film
Center & Cafe at Mockingbird Station in Dallas. Reserve tickets by sending
an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or purchase them at the theater.
Southern Methodist University will host a panel discussion at 7 p.m.
Thursday at the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Forum, 3140 Dyer St.
In my first church in Sinton, Texas, I promised a man he would not have to
die alone. I kept that promise throughout my ministry. The prison hospital
was on my unit, and I had hundreds of people die, and I tried to be there.
These are human beings, and everyone should have a friend when they die.
Initially, you supported the death penalty. Why?
I was raised in Texas, the Wild West. I was taught that this was
necessary. I was at the prison in 1974 when 2 of my church members were
murdered in the longest prison siege in history. I had to tell 2 families
that their mothers were killed, and I conducted their funerals. I thought
this was justice.
After each execution, you recorded a tape about what you had seen. What
purpose did that serve?
Living alone at the time that I started executions in 1982, I came home
after the first, and I had to talk. … I decided to talk to a machine and
get it all out. It helped make a traumatic experience a little more
You spent time with inmates during their final hours. Did they confess
their crimes? Proclaim their innocence?
Yes, and more. There were many who did not commit the crime, and their
innocence was the basic topic for the entire day and night. These were
difficult since I knew some of them were not the people who pulled the
triggers. Some were victims of the law of parties. Some were fully
When did doubts about capital punishment begin to creep into your
Maybe it was the first [execution]. But it became very real with one of
the first [executions of someone who] did not pull the trigger. …Then, I
began to visit with families of the victims who found no closure. … It
was not a deterrent to anyone except the one who was executed.
Was there a pivotal moment that changed your mind about the death penalty?
No, it was a period of growth. But I watched a young man die who called me
"Daddy." I knew that he was innocent, and another inmate in another unit
bragged about doing the murder. My inmate took the fall. That was a strong
Do you believe that you saw innocent men executed?
Absolutely. If a man is killed for just being [at the scene of a crime],
to me, he was innocent. And others did not commit the crimes. Others just
didn't have the means, the money, or the legal system to help them.
Many of the condemned inmates were guilty of heinous crimes. How do you
answer the victims' families who want to see a loved one's killer put to
What does it accomplish? It doesn't bring their loved one back. There is
no such thing as closure.
You've said there's a better way to ensure justice. What would you
Accept the fact that there is a possibility that innocent people have been
and will be executed. Accept the fact that people can grow and change and
repent and can be useful to the world, even in prison. … Lethal
injection is still cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by our
Despite declining support for the death penalty in other parts of the
country, Texas hasn't wavered. Do you hold out hope for convincing state
leaders that death by prison is a viable alternative?
Absolutely. If our state leaders who hold the keys to life and death in
Texas would watch just one execution, and if that happened to be one of
the botched executions, I know they would change. We have had some
wonderful wardens and correctional officers and staff members who had had
enough, and I believe state officials would get a truer picture of what
murder by needles really is.
(source: Dallas Morning News)