Maurie Levin (center) speaks as the panelists (left to right: Jeff Adachi, S.F. Public Defender, Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune investigative journalist, Elisabeth Semel, anti-death penalty attorney and Clinical Professor of Law at Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley, California, former chaplain Reverend Carroll Pickett, "Death House" filmmaker Peter Gilbert, and Santa Clara University School of Law professor Gerald Uelmen at the "Perspectives At The Death House Door" special hearing on capital punishment, held yesterday in San Francisco.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Debating Death For The Innocent And The Guilty, In Conjunction With A Film

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 13, 2008


The statistics as advertised, were grim.  "There have been 1100 executions nationally, in the modern era -- since 1974," intoned University at Texas School of Law at Austin Adjunct Professor Maurie Levin somberly, her voice cutting through the almost rustic silence of the stark, expansive room on the third floor of the BASF Conference Center in this city's Financial District.  Ms. Levin continued: "There are 3,350 people on death row, nationally.  California of course has the largest death row, with 669 residents.  There have been 129 exonerations nationally.  Three of those have taken place in California . . . and there have been 13 executions here since the resumption of executions in 1992."  These figures and other alarming information about America's system of capital punishment were dispensed, discussed and debated yesterday at a forum entitled "Perspectives At The Death House Door: A Special Hearing on Capital Punishment", held in conjunction with the Bar Association of San Francisco and the Independent Film Channel, which will televise the documentary "At The Death House Door" on cable television in the U.S. on May 29 at 9 pm Eastern time and 9 pm Pacific time.

"At The Death House Door" is directed by "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James and "Dreams" producer Peter Gilbert, and Mr. Gilbert was here yesterday along with the subject of his documentary Reverend Carroll Pickett, a death house chaplain who had been at "The Walls" at the prison complex in Huntsville, Texas.  For fifteen years it was Pastor Pickett's job to minister to people on death row in the 12 to 24 hours before and leading right up to their execution, winning their confidence, soothing their emotions and keeping their mental states and dispositions calm, even though the Reverend knew in some cases, that several of the 95 men who he witnessed being put to death were innocent.  "It's murder, is what it is", said Reverend Pickett yesterday of capital punishment during the panel discussion.  Pastor Pickett was an ardent death penalty advocate, but two men that he ministered to dramatically changed his outlook: Charlie Brooks, whom the pastor yesterday said he "knew was innocent", and the even more painful case of Carlos De Luna, which the Reverend said troubled him to no end and turned him into a fervent anti-death penalty proponent.  "It is hard to tell anybody, even the meanest person, that it is time to go," the pastor could be heard saying, during a trailer for "At The Death House Door" that was played here along with several other clips from the film during the course of the panel discussion.  Except by all accounts, Mr. De Luna, a baby-faced thirty-something, was hardly mean.

Mr. De Luna was sentenced to the brutal stabbing death of a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1980's.  Blood was everywhere.  He was found very close by hiding under a truck , arrested within 20 to 40 minutes of the murder being committed.  Not a single drop of blood was on him.  Still, police placed him in what Steve Mills, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune called a "suggestive line-up".  Mr. Mills did much of the leg work in piecing together the disturbing facts and inconsistencies of the De Luna case, and Mr. Mills' appearance in the film was further buttressed by his appearance yesterday on the panel.  Mr. Mills met skepticism and polite resistance head on when professor Levin, the panel's moderator questioned his choice of words during one statement that he made.  Mr. Mills, whom for many years has worked on getting evidence that has helped to overturn verdicts and death sentences in Illinois (a documentary was made about then-Governor Ryan of Illinois reversal and commutation of over 200 death penalty sentences) had said that it was an "understandable assumption" that police in Texas made in their effort to allege that Mr. De Luna was the killer.  "Maybe that's being too charitable," said Mr. Mills, backpedaling a little from his earlier statement. 

Mr. De Luna, who had previously been imprisoned not more than a month before for petty larceny, soon found himself on death row, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including the fact that Carlos Hernandez, a notorious serial killer who committed knife murders as his signature crime, and carried them out with the very same knife found at the convenience store.  Mr. De Luna was executed in 1989, and Reverend Pickett said that as a chaplain he knew that Mr. De Luna was innocent but couldn't say anything because he would lose his job.  Mr. Hernandez died in prison several years ago.  He had been arrested a few years after Mr. De Luna in connection with a separate murder.

In California executions have been on hiatus since 2006 following a refusal by state wardens to lethally inject a person on death row.  There is pending litigation in the California courts on the matter of lethal injection, which the United States Supreme Court recently ruled was permissible and not a cruel and unusual punishment.  Yesterday Reverend Pickett strongly disagreed, stating that it can sometimes take over an hour to lethally inject a person, and that sometimes the deadly chemicals and poisons injected do not work, and that there is no way that the injecting warden can know that a chemical which has numbed the vital nervous system of the person strapped to the gurney isn't working.  More than ten chemicals might be injected into a person in what the reverend yesterday termed a "botched execution", before death actually occurred -- death that was excruciating.  On other occasions, the reverend said, the vein to be injected may be very hard to find on a person.  (There is a moment in the film in which one person sentenced to death helps the executing warden find the vein.  "And he was gone, just like that", Reverend Pickett recalls on screen during "Death House Door".)

Jeff Adachi, the city's Public Defender, spoke about the costs allocated to defending those accused of murder who faced death row and stated that the country's resources for public defenders was meager.  In a sad but also funny anecdote he drew a contrast with London's public defenders, whom the city funds heavily.  "It is the prosecution that is poorly funded there," Mr. Adachi said.  Elisabeth Semel, Clinical Professor of Law at Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley University and director of the Death Penalty Clinic took great care to emphasize the perception that death penalty is all about "black and white terms of did he do it or didn't he", engaging in a detailed legal analysis and explanation that outlined a lot of complex distinctions.  Ms. Semel and her law school students have prepared several "friend of the court" briefs filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in such cases as Miller-El v. Cockrell, Miller-El v. Dretke and Snyder v. Louisiana.

The inevitable dynamic of black and white were reintroduced when the subject of race came up as a huge factor in death penalty cases.  Among other not-so-new factors to the politically savvy audience in attendance here was that the race of the murder victim always predicated whether or not a person convicted of the crime would be sentenced to death.  Gerald Uelmen, current professor and former Dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law and one of the attorneys who assisted in the defense of O.J. Simpson during his criminal trial in 1994 and 1995, read some detailed statistics on race, including the mention that almost 70% of those on death row for rape and other violent or deadly offenses were there in situations where the victims were of different races than their own.  Close to 60% of these crimes later resulted in exonerations, the dean said, who cited that less than 20% of all rapes in America were cross-racial, juxtaposing the two percentages in stark terms to reveal the harsh racial disparity that could be clearly gleaned from them.  Following Dean Uelmen's presentation, Professor Levin rather painfully if not brusquely said that "we can spend hours talking hours talking about race and the death penalty," placing an odd segue into the discussion, which skewered in a different direction soon thereafter.

The discussion on the merits of the death penalty will continue in various forum settings across America over the next few days, and with evidence of innocence where Carlos De Luna was concerned, innocence now more or less admitted by the Texas authorities some 19 years after Mr. De Luna's execution, there remain Mr. De Luna's haunting final statement before his death:

"I want to say I hold no grudges.  I hate no one.  I love my family.  Tell everyone on Death Row to keep the faith and don't give up."

"At The Death House Door" will be televised on the Independent Film Channel on May 29 in the U.S. at 9 pm Eastern time and 9 pm Pacific time.

Related feature story: Reverend Pickett, Shepherding and Ministering The Guilty (And Innocent) To The Very End

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