THE POPCORN REEL FEATURE STORY: FORMER DEATH HOUSE CHAPLAIN REV. CARROLL PICKETT AND FILMMAKER PETER GILBERT

Documentary filmmaker Peter Gilbert and Pastor Carroll Pickett, now an advocate against the death penalty.  The reverend used to be a "death house" chaplain, charged with the responsibility of accompanying a death row prisoner during his final hours before being put to death by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com)

Reverend Pickett, Shepherding A Guilty (Or Not) Flock, Till Death Do They Part

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 21, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO, California

"It is hard to tell anybody, even the meanest person, that it is time to go."

Those are the words of Pastor Carroll Pickett, who as a "death house" chaplain ministered and guided 95 men over a 15-year-period to their inevitable end through lethal injection in "The Walls", a section of the Texas prison system in the lone star city of Huntsville.  A man of devout faith, Reverend Pickett (who is featured in "Hoop Dreams" filmmaker Peter Gilbert's documentary "At The Death House Door" -- which will be broadcast in the U.S. on the cable station Independent Film Channel (IFC) on May 29 in the U.S. at 9pm Eastern and Pacific time,) was an equally unabashed death penalty advocate. 

The pastor had suffered early personal setbacks which would play a significant role in shaping his pro-forma death penalty stance.  As a young child, his grandfather, whom he was very close to, was murdered.  He also saw two of his warden colleagues at "The Walls" murdered by inmates during a prison uprising.  And from the start he had a father whom he never was able to get close to, a father who taught him never to show emotion.  During the documentary pastor Pickett mentioned how a further belt whipping would come his way if he cried, he recalled his father telling him.  This hardened attitude ingrained into him, a faith unwavering, the reverend's opinion was firmly in favor of the state killing those who committed murder and were sentenced to death.

At a special hearing on Monday May 12 here entitled "Perspectives At The Death House Door", pastor Pickett was part of a seven-member panel discussing the state of the death penalty, which can now be found in 38 of 50 American states in the Union.  He cited a litany of statistical profiles of those he spent calming the nerves of, and gaining their trust over the years before their deaths came.  "Sixty-seven percent of those that I dealt with were minorities.  Ninety percent of them had a seventh-grade education or less.  We only had one, out of those 95 that had a college degree," said the pastor, who made a veiled joke about the college degree holder being a jailhouse lawyer.  The former chaplain also said that with prisoners of different faiths that he and the wardens had to learn about the customs of diverse religions. 

The faith of the wardens was tested.  Many times, the reverend said, wardens mentioned to him that their religious beliefs forbade them from strapping down people on a gurney and administering injections.  Some of the guards had nervous breakdowns before witnessing the administering of lethal injections, according to the reverend.  After witnessing the executions of the prisoners by lethal injection, some of the wardens would tell Reverend Pickett that they would not come in the following morning because they knew that they would have nightmares, physical sickness and trauma.  The reverend spoke of witnessing a lethal injection death.  "It is not pleasant.  That second drug is painful.  If you spend 45 minutes trying to find a vein, that is 16 different-sized needles going into somebody's arm.  Don't tell me that isn't painful," said pastor Pickett during the panel conference discussion.  The amount of drug that gets injected into a death row prisoner is the same for a 160-pound person as it is for a 270-pound person.  

After the conference discussion, Reverend Pickett and "Death House Door" filmmaker Peter Gilbert spoke to The Popcorn Reel.  Asked if the word guilt had ever been something he felt during any of the executions of the 95 prisoners he had spent their last hours with, the pastor had this response: "not guilt not guilt.  There was a feeling of helplessness of those that I knew did not pull the trigger.  The ones that I knew that the governor (of Texas) knew did not pull the trigger.  And I met with the attorney general.  And he told me that he wasn't in favor of the death penalty.  And he signed in the (death) warrants.  There were things where I was just helpless to do anything about it," said the retired chaplain. 

Reverend Pickett has plenty of passion about what he has seen and what has affected him over the years and as he speaks it is evident that he bears a lot of pain and anger harnessed from the totality of his experiences in the prison system.  Again, he stresses that guilt didn't fall into the equation for him.  "It's not guilt, but I would like to able to go to somebody and say, 'your son did not commit the crime.'  And they say 'how do you know?'  I say, 'because the real killer confessed in my office.'  There's one who confessed to several crimes.  And I talked to a friend of mine who's a lawyer in a certain area.  And I said, 'were there any of these rape-murders in this particular time ran at this particular place?'"

After a while, the answer came.

"He ran it through and there were twelve unsolved crimes.  Now I feel bad about that, but I do not feel guilty because there's not a thing I could do.  If I could do something . . . "

Reverend Pickett's voice trails off.

"Being in at the death house, it's helpless sometimes.  It's hopeless when a person is trying so hard to say, 'I'm gonna get a stay, I'm gonna get a stay, I'm gonna get a stay,' and I know that we've already been informed that at five minutes to twelve (midnight) that the governor's gonna say, 'no'.  And you have to keep (the death row prisoner's) hope up and faith up and you know in advance that (the governor's office) has already notified the warden."  It is sensible to ask whether the reverend with this foreknowledge about a prisoner's fate is betraying the very person whose trust he is supposed to win.

For the former "death house" chaplain, there's only one answer.

"No.  I can't.  I can't disclose it.  Because it's, as they say in the law say, that's hearsay information," he laughs.  The reverend turns to filmmaker Peter Gilbert, who now weighs in on the uncomfortable predicament on the inmate and on pastor Pickett.  "That's between a rock and a hard place.  That's a tough place to be.  And I think that was always -- I mean in the film, I mean I don't -- I think it was a point where it was all about those men, in ministering to those men.  And it wasn't about you know, right or wrong in that sense, it was about trying to, you know, as you say, be a friend to those guys as they've got to walk those last ten feet," said Mr. Gilbert. 

Faith, as mentioned is obviously a strong component in Carroll Pickett's life.  But surely there were other components that kept the Texas reverend going and kept him from losing his mind and keep him going through the 95 executions he witnessed over his tenure as a death house chaplain.  "It was a commitment to what I said -- the ministry of prisons.  That's something that I started back in 1957? with a fellow down in my first church.  And I promised him -- he wanted me to promise him that I'd be with him when he died.  Well that's almost impossible.  And that's really a stupid promise to make, you know, to say that I can guarantee that.  His name was Dan Miller.  I was just brand new to the ministry.  I was just a kid.  And I promised I would be with him."

Truth is stranger, they say, than fiction.  And as ads for a sports outerwear company says, impossible is nothing.  "And it turned out that I was there (for Mr. Miller's death)," said Reverend Pickett.  "And I promised that I would never make that promise.  But I did it.  But I also promised that I didn't want anyone to die alone.  Dan died alone.  And so many people throughout my ministry have died alone.  So many convicts have died alone.  Those who I've had to cut down who have hung themselves in a single cell.  They were alone.  If I had the opportunity to be with you (he points at the interviewer) and you (he looks over at Mr. Gilbert) at all -- if you had no friends, no family, I'd be there.  I just feel -- and its a feeling I've had all my life -- all my ministerial life, that as Jesus said, 'lo, I'm with you always,'" said pastor Pickett.

"And if I can be with them, I'll be with them."

One of the prisoners who was executed who will always be with Reverend Pickett (who has audio taped commentaries of his thoughts and impressions of each of the 95 prisoners whom he ministered before their execution) is Carlos De Luna. 

Carlos De Luna was accused and wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Texas convenience store clerk.  His story is featured prominently in Steve James' and Mr. Gilbert's film "At The Death House Door".  The crime scene was a bloody mess.  When Mr. De Luna was arrested -- less than 30 minutes after the crime had happened -- he had been found hiding under a truck.  Not a drop of blood was found on him.  Carlos Hernandez, a career criminal who had been known by local law enforcement to commit such crimes with the exact same knife that was found at the crime scene. 

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Carlos De Luna, heretofore a petty thief, and never anything more, was executed for the convenience store murder in 1989.  The Texas police are only know just beginning to acknowledge that they may have made a mistake in executing Mr. De Luna.  Reverend Pickett knew at the time of his execution that Mr. De Luna was innocent. 

"I don't want to heal myself from Carlos," said the reverend, with a conviction, passion and mild anger stirring in his voice.  "I don't want to reach where I can watch an innocent man die and say . . . Carlos was innocent.  There's no doubt in my mind.  Carlos suffered (during his long and protracted execution by lethal injection.)  There's no doubt in my mind.  The drugs (injected in him during his execution) didn't work.  There's no doubt in my mind.  Every one of those (drugs) we talked about (at the panel conference) are in Carlos.  And as long as Carlos is in me and I'm remembering Carlos, I'm not gonna stop this.  I'm not gonna stop going to these places (to speak out).

"As long as Carlos, with big brown eyes -- as long as I see those eyes -- and I see them periodically, I saw them last night -- I do not wanna quote, get over him.  I don't feel guilty.  I feel like I failed him maybe.  But I want to know what Carlos was saying.  And I want to know that what he was saying was 'thank you, Daddy.'  And that's where I want to leave it.  'Thank you, Daddy.'"

Steve James and Peter Gilbert's feature length documentary "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.  A review will appear here at The Popcorn Reel this Friday. 

Related: "Perspectives At The Death House Door" panel conference discussion

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