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Interview: At the Death House Door

posted by Nell Minow

At the Death House Door is an extraordinary documentary from the makers of “Hoop Dreams.” It is the story of Pastor Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville. He spent the last 24 hours with 95 different men who were about to be executed. After each was killed, Pickett recorded an audiotape account of his trip to the death chamber. Through his experiences, including the witnessing of the execution of a man later proven to be innocent, he became convinced that the death penalty was wrong. The film premieres on May 29 at 9:00 PM Eastern on the Independent Film Channel.

I spoke to Pastor Pickett about his experiences:

How did you first come to work at the prison?

I was minister of a Presbyterian church in Huntsville Texas. During the time I was at that church they had a prison siege and the director called me and said, “I want you to minister to the families of those who were hostages. For 11 days and nights they were held hostage and then they had a big shoot out across the street. The only ones killed were two of my church members. I was planning to do one’s wedding the next Saturday. Then in 1980 the same guy who called me asked me to come work at the prison for one year. I went for one year. I didn’t sign any papers but I stayed there 16 years. God had prepared me back in 1974 to go to the prison. I went there believing this was God’s will. I felt like God wanted me to be there. As it says in the Bible, “I was in prison and you came to me.”

What surprised you about the prison experience?

The biggest thing that surprised me that there were so many nice people who were willing to participate in the program, so many who were Christians who had, for lack of a better term, left the fold. There were so many victimless crimes, so many who were innocent, so many who had made financial mistakes.

What did you try to teach them?

We helped them understand that it is happier and better to live the way God wants you to — whatever religion you are. We had Catholics, 26 Jewish people — we had the first seder in the prison. In prison you can still practice your faith, and I was so happy many of them were really willing to give a lot. There were a lot of people who were good but had made mistake. I don’t believe in rehabilitation, but these people had changed. one night had changed me. So many of them got out. Close to 100 who used to be in prison are now ministers.

What did you use to reach these people?

I believe that the music is so important. So many people are musicians and express themselves musically. We started a choir. We had a different one for the Catholics because they sing different songs, one for the Hispanics, a gospel for the black prisoners. One of the requirements was that in order to be a part of the choir they had to maintain all the rules, they had to work, they had to participate in all the activities. One former back up singer for Don Ho was one of my singers, a state Supreme Court justice was one of my singers. I was permitted to give points for parole for those who participated.

Did the prisoners help each other?

Yes! The prisoners ministered to each other. We had 28 ministers in prison. Ministers go to prison too. We had a father and son who were missionaries in South America. The mother died and the father got real angry at God, so they became bank robbers. And a lot of ministers get framed.

Tell me about your work with the men on death row.

I was chaplain for the people in the death house. I only got to see them on the last day, the way it was set up. I stayed with them usually from 6 am to 12 midnight. We used to execute them at 12. After helping 95 walk the gurney and get killed by the state, I concluded that there are innocent people being put to death and there are mentally retarded. Because of the “law of parties,” there are those who are guilty by law but not by crime. The one who actually did the crime got off and the other one was executed.

Carlos De Luna was innocent, we proved he was innocent. He had no father, his father left him and his stepfather was a drunk. On that last day, I took care of him all day long and we got along real well. I told him I believed he was innocent and he said, “I wish everybody else did.” That afternoon he asked, “Can I call you Daddy? That is different than being called “Father.” I have a son the same age. That changed the whole attitude in the death house, that night, letting him call me that. Carlos said, “Thank you Daddy. Thanks for being with me, Daddy. I wish I had you when I was a boy — I would never have been a problem at all.” He asked, “Daddy, would you pray?” He was in the cell, on his knees. I put my hands through the bars. That is illegal but I did not pay attention to those rules. While they strapped him to the gurney he said, “Daddy, I appreciate you being here today.” I never will forget those big brown eyes looking at me. He kept looking up. I don’t know what he was trying to say. I was hoping he would say, “Thank you, Daddy.” That’s the way I would like to believe. He was a good kid. I would have taken him home forever.

IFC has made available teaching materials about the movie.



  • Dudley Sharp

    Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted “At the Death House Door”?
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
    Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the anti death penalty film “At the Death House Door”. It is partially about the Reverend’s experience ministering to 95 death row inmates executed in Texas.
    Rev. Pickett’s inaccuracies are many and important.
    Does Rev. Pickett just make facts up as he goes along, hoping that no one fact checks, or is he just confused or ignorant?
    Some of his miscues are common anti death penalty deceptions. The reverend is an anti death penalty activist.
    Below are comments or paraphrases of Rev. Pickett, taken from interviews, followed by my Reply:.
    1) Pickett: I knew (executed inmate) Carlos (De Luna) didn’t do it. It was his big brown eyes, the way he talked, he was the same age as my son (transference). I felt so sympathetic towards him. I was so 100% certain that he couldn’t have committed this crime. (Carlos) was a super person to minister to. I knew Carlos was not guilty. Fred Allen a guard, said “by the way he talks and acts I don’t believe he is guilty, either. (1)
    REPLY: Experienced prison personnel are fooled all the time by prisoners, just as parole boards are. This is simply Rev. Pickett’s and Fred Allen’s blind speculation and nothing more.
    More than that, it appears that Rev. Pickett is, now, either lying about his own opinions or he is very confused. Read on.
    2) Pickett: believes that, no way, could someone, so afraid of lightning and thunder, such as Carlos De Luna, use a knife (in a crime). (1)
    Reply: Rev. Pickett talks about how important his background is in understanding people and behavior and he says something like this, destroying his own credibility on the issue. If the lightning and thunder event occurred, we already know what De Luna was capable of. In 1980, “De Luna was charged with attempted aggravated rape and driving a stolen vehicle, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 2 to 3 years. Paroled in May 1982, De Luna returned to Corpus Christi. Not long after, he attended a party for a former cellmate and was accused of attacking the cellmate’s 53-year-old mother. She told police that De Luna broke three of her ribs with one punch, removed her underwear, pulled down his pants, then suddenly left. He was never prosecuted for the attack, but authorities sent him back to prison on a parole violation. Released again in December of that year, he came back to Corpus Christi and got a job as a concrete worker. Almost immediately, he was arrested for public intoxication. During the arrest, De Luna allegedly laughed about the wounding of a police officer months earlier and said the officer should have been killed. Two weeks after that arrest, Lopez was murdered.” (Chicago Tribune) Being a long time criminal, we can presume that there were numerous additional crimes committed by De Luna and which remained unsolved. Was De Luna capable of committing a robbery murder, even though he had big brown eyes and was scared of lightning? Of course. This goes to Rev. Pickett’s poor judgement or something else.
    There is this major problem.
    In 1999, years after Rev. Pickett had left his death row ministry, and 10 years after De Luna’s execution, the reverend was asked, in a PBS Frontline interview, “Do you think there have been some you have watched die who were strictly innocent?”
    His reply: “I never felt that.” (3)
    For many years, and since the 1989 execution of Carlos De Luna, the reverend never felt that any of the 95 executed were actually innocent.
    This directly conflicts with his current statements on Carlos De Luna. Rev. Pickett is, now, saying that he was 100% sure of De Luna’s innocence in 1989!
    It appears the reverend has either revised history to support his new anti death penalty activism – he’s lying – or he is, again, very confused. Reverend?
    3) Introduction: In 1974, prison librarian Judy Standley and teacher Von Beseda were murdered during an 11 day prison siege and escape attempt. Ignacio Cuevas was sentenced to death, as one of three prisoners who were involved. The other two died in the shootout.
    Ms. Standley and Ms. Beseda were part of Rev. Pickett’s congregation, outside of prison.
    Pickett: After Cuevas was executed, Rev. Pickett alleges that he met with Judy Standley’s family and they told the reverend that “This (the execution) didn’t bring closure.” “This didn’t help us.” According to Rev. Pickett, “They didn’t want him (Ignacio Cuevas) executed.” (1)
    Reply; There might be a big problem. Judy Standley’s five children wrote a statement, before the execution, which stated: “We are relieved the ordeal may almost be over, but we are also aware that to some, this case represents only one of many in which, arguably, `justice delayed is justice denied,” “We are hopeful the sentence will finally be carried out and that justice will at last be served,” said the statement, signed by Ty, Dru, Mark, Pam and Stuart Standley. (4)
    Sure seemed like the kids wanted Cuevas to be executed. Doesn’t it? Reverend?
    4) Pickett: “A great majority of them (the 95 executed inmates he ministered to) were black or Hispanic.” (1)
    Reply: The reverend’s point, here, is to emphasize the alleged racist nature of the death penalty. There is a problem for the reverend – the facts – the “great majority” were 47 white (49%) with 32 black (34%), and 16 Hispanic (17%).
    5) Pickett: “Out of the 95 we executed only one that had a college degree. All the rest of them their education was 9th grade and under.” (1)
    Reply: Not even close. Rev. Pickett’s point, here, seems to be that capital murderers are, almost all, idiots who can’t be held responsible for their actions. But, there are more fact problems for the reverend. In a review of only 31 of the 95 cases, 5 had some college or post graduate classes and 16 were high school graduates or completed their GED. Partial review (Incomplete Count) , below.
    Would Rev. Pickett tell us about the educational achievements of all the true innocent murder victims and those that weren’t old enough for school?
    6) Pickett: spoke of the Soldier of Fortune murder for hire case, stating the husband got the death penalt, while the hired murderer got 6 years. (1)
    Reply: Rev. Pickett’s point, here, was the unfairness of the sentence disparity. More fact problems. John Wayne Hearn, the hitman, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sandra Black.
    7) Pickett: speaks of how sincere hostage taker, murderer Ignacio Cuevas was. Rev. Pickett states that “between 11 and midnight (I) believe almost everything” the inmates say, because they are about to be executed. (1)
    Reply: Bad judgement. Minutes later, Cuevas lied when on the gurney, stating that he was innocent. This goes to show how Rev. Pickett and many others are easily fooled by these murderers. Pickett concedes the point.
    8) Pickett: “In my opinion and in the opinion of the convicts, life in prison, with no hope of parole, is a much worse punishment (than the death penalty).” “Most of these people (death row inmates) fear life in prison more than they do the possibility of execution.” (2)
    REPLY: More fact problems. We know that isn’t the opinion of those facing a possible death sentence of those residing on death row. This gives more support to my suspicion that Rev. Pickett is putting words into the inmates’ mouths.
    Facts: What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence, rather than seeking a life sentence? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment. What percentage of convicted capital murderers argue for execution in the penalty phase of their capital trial? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment. What percentage of death row inmates waive their appeals and speed up the execution process? Nearly zero (less than 2%). They prefer long term imprisonment. This is not, even remotely, in dispute. How could Rev. Pickett not be aware of this? How long was he ministering to Texas’ death row? 13 years?
    9) Pickett: stated that “doctors can’t (check the veins of inmates pending execution), it’s against the law.” (1)
    Reply: Ridiculous. Obviously untrue.
    10) Pickett: Pavulon (a paralytic) has been banned by vets but we use it on people. (1)
    REPLY: This is untrue and is a common anti death penalty deception. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stetes, “When used alone, these drugs (paralytics) all cause respiratory arrest before loss of consciousness, so the animal may perceive pain and distress after it is immobilized.” Obviously, paralytics are never used alone in the human lethal injection process or animal euthanasia. The AVMA does not mention the specific paralytic – Pavulon – used in lethal injection for humans. These absurd claims, falsely attributed to veterinary literature, have been a bald faced lie by anti death penalty activists.
    In Belgium and the Netherlands, their euthanasia protocol is as follows: A coma is first induced by intravenous administration of 20 mg/kg sodium thiopental (Nesdonal) (NOTE-the first drug in human lethal injection) in a small volume (10 ml physiological saline). Then a triple intravenous dose of a non-depolarizing neuromuscular muscle relaxant is given, such as 20 mg pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) (NOTE-the second drug, the paralytic, in human lethal injection) or 20 mg vecuronium bromide (Norcuron). The muscle relaxant should preferably be given intravenously, in order to ensure optimal availability (NOTE: as in human lethal injection). Only for pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) are there substantial indications that the agent may also be given intramuscularly in a dosage of 40 mg. (NOTE: That is how effective the second drug in human lethal injection is, that it can be given intramuscularly and still hasten death).
    Just like execution/lethal injection in the US, although we give a third drug which speeds up death, even more.
    11) Pickett: “Most of the inmates would ask the question, “How can Texas kill people who kill people and tell people that killing people is wrong?” That came out of inmates’ mouths regularly and I think it’s a pretty good question to ask.” (2)
    REPLY: Most? Would that be more than 47 out of 95? I simply don’t believe it. 10 out of 95? Doubtful. I suspect it is no coincidence that “Why do we kill people to show that killing is wrong” has been a common anti death penalty slogan for a very long time. I suspect that Rev. Pickett has just picked it up, used it and placed it in inmate’s mouths. Furthermore, we don’t execute murderers to show that murder is wrong. Most folks know that murder is wrong even without a sanction.
    12) Pickett: said an inmate said “its burning” “its burning”, during an execution. (1)
    REPLY: This may have occurred for a variety of reasons and does not appear to be an issue. It is the third drug which is noted for a burning sensation, if one were conscious during its injection. However, none of the inmates that Rev. Pickett handled were conscious after the first drug was administered. That would not be the case, here, as the burning complaints came at the very beginning of the injection process, which would involve a reaction where the burning would be quite minor. Has Rev. Pickett reviewed the pain and suffering of the real victims – the innocent murdered ones?
    Bottom line. Reverend Pickett’s credibility is as high as a snakes belly.
    Time to edit the movie?!
    ————
    Incomplete count
    this is a review of 31 out of the 95 death row inmates ministered by Rev. Pickett
    21 of the 31 below had some college or post graduate classes (5)
    or were high school graduates or completed their GED (16)
    ———–
    1) Brooks 12
    3) O’Bryan post graduate degree – dentist
    41 james russel 10th
    42 G Green sophomore college
    45 David Clark 10th and GED
    46 Edward Ellis 10th
    47 Billy White 10th
    48 Justin May 11th
    49 Jesus Romero 11th and GED
    50 Robert Black, Jr. a pilot (probably beyond 12th)
    55. Carlos Santana 11th
    57 Darryl Stewart 12th
    58 Leonel Herrera 11th and GED
    60) Markum Duff Smith Post graduate College
    33) Carlos De Luna 9th
    95 Ronald Keith Allridge 10th and GED
    93 Noble Mays Junior in College
    92 Samuel Hawkins 12th
    91 Billy Conn Gardner 12th
    90 Jeffery Dean Motley 9th
    89 Willie Ray Williams 11th
    86 Jesse Jacobs 12th
    85 Raymond Carl Kinnamon 11th and GED
    84 Herman Clark sophomore college
    83 Warren Eugene Bridge 11th
    82 Walter Key Williams 12th
    72 Harold Barnard 12th
    73 Freddie Webb 11th and GED
    75 Larry Anderson 12th
    77 Stephen Nethery 12th
    79 Robert Drew 10th
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    e-mail sharpjfa@aol.com, 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas
    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
    Pro death penalty sites
    homicidesurvivors(dot)com/categories/Dudley%20Sharp%20-%20Justice%20Matters.aspx
    www(dot)dpinfo.com
    www(dot)cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPinformation.htm
    www(dot)clarkprosecutor.org/html/links/dplinks.htm
    www(dot)coastda.com/archives.html
    www(dot)lexingtonprosecutor.com/death_penalty_debate.htm
    www(dot)prodeathpenalty.com
    www(dot)yesdeathpenalty.com/deathpenalty_co
    yesdeathpenalty.googlepages.com/home2 (Sweden)
    www(dot)wesleylowe.com/cp.html
    1) “Chaplain Discusses ‘Death House’ Ministry”, Interview, Legal Affairs, FRESH AIR, NPR, May 19, 2007.
    2) THE FAILURE INTERVIEW: REVEREND CARROLL PICKETT—AUTHOR OF “WITHIN THESE WALLS: MEMOIRS OF A DEATH HOUSE CHAPLAIN” Interview, by Kathleen A. Ervin
    www(DOT)failuremag.com/arch_history_carroll_pickett_interview.html
    3) “The Execution: Interview with Reverend Carroll Pickett”, PBS, FRONTLINE, 1999
    www(DOT)pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/pickett.html
    4) “Appellate court refuses to stay killer’s execution”, Kathy Fair, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star edition, 05/23/1991

  • Cindi

    I am not sure what to say after reading all of this information. It is overwhelming to me! I have often wondered why there was a death penalty mainly because of possible innocence! I would put myself in the situation and think what if I knew I was innocent of a crime, but no one would believe me?! Food for thought…..Thanks, Cindi

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you very much for your comments, Mr. Sharp. I hope everyone who reads them will watch the film because it is an inspiring story of an extraordinary ministry, with kindness and compassion to some of society’s most troubled souls and greatest transgressors.
    For more information on the issues surrounding the death penalty, I recommend The Death Penalty Information Center and for a religious assessment of the issues, Religious Tolerance. The ACLU’s site and the NCADP are good resources for opponents of the death penalty.

  • iorek

    Mr. Sharp, you have devoted a great deal of time and effort trying to vindicate your feelings of vengeance and anger. I understand your bitterness. Some of these people (not all) have committed terrible actions, and it is tempting to avert your eyes from all consideration of why– child abuse, mental retardation, mistreatment– because complexity dilutes the feeling of righteous indignation you feel when you play the sword of an avenging angel. But the point is that every serious study of capital punishment for more than 50 years (starting with Arthur Koestler’s classic, “Hanged By The Neck,” and going through the Northwestern Law School innocence project, has supported Reverend Pickett’s basic position. You’ll have to do better than looking for inconsistencies in Reverend Pickett’s statements to begin to address the underlying injustice.
    Most appalling, when Texas made capital punishment a high volume business under Governor Bush, the person in charge of the final evaluation before execution was Alberto Gonzalez, the same man who repeatedly embarrassed himself and the Justice Department last year by testifying that he never bothered to read, think about, or lose a moment’s sleep over anything that Bush instructed him to do. God only knows how many innocent people he sent to their death just because he lacked the curiosity to open the file.

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