Movie Mom

Movie Mom


Interview: Steve James of ‘At the Death House Door’

posted by Nell Minow

I last wrote about the superb documentary At the Death House Door when I interviewed its subject, Pastor Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville. The film was the first-time direction collaboration between award-winning directors Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Peter Gilbert (“Vietnam: Long Time Coming”). James was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the film.

At the Death House Door at LocateTV.com

How did you first hear about Pastor Carroll Pickett?

Steve James: Gordon Quinn at our film company Kartemquin was approached by The Chicago Tribune because they thought we would be interested in doing a film focused entirely on the investigation of the Carlos De Luna case by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. Gordon knew that Peter and I would be interested in the subject and set up a meeting with the reporters. In the course of telling us about De Luna, they also mentioned Pastor Carroll Pickett who had been haunted by the memory of De Luna, and recorded these feelings in an amazing audio tape about the execution right afterwards. When they revealed he’d recorded audio tapes about all 95 executions he’d
ministered to, we were hooked. We decided from the get-go, that we wanted Rev. Pickett’s journey to be our main story, and bring us to why De Luna was so important to him.

What was your original intention for the film and how did it evolve?

SJ: See answer above… As stated, the original intention of the Tribune was to have us do a film about Carlos De Luna, but its hard to do a film about a man who was not famous or led a well-documented life, and who was executed 17 years before. With the mention of Pickett, it was clear that we had a unique and potentially powerful story to tell about a man’s past and also who he is today. This is one time when the original conception of what the film could be was pretty much on target for what the film ultimately became.But that doesn’t mean that the filmmaking process did not evolve. We didn’t anticipate guard Fred Allen, nor Carlos’ sister Rose, nor Carroll’s family and the significance they would all play in the film. Nor did we anticipate just how closed and “well armored” Carroll was as a person and how this film would ultimately – in his words – prove to be “the therapy he never got.”

What films inspired you to create documentaries? What documentaries most influenced your approach?

SJ: I was initially influenced by fiction films – one director in particular whose work was always characterized by complex portrayals of his subjects. That director was the great Jean Renoir, director of such classics as The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. But I was also affected by less celebrated films of his like “Toni” and “The Crime of Mister Lange.” Renoir was the ultimate humanist filmmaker, a great observer of the human condition. Documentary influences were the films of Barbara Kopple, particularly Harlan County, U.S.A., 35 Up by Michael Apted, and The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein.



  • Dudley Sharp

    Credibility Isues: “At the Death House Door”
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
    To: Film schools, festivals, institutes, websites and reviewers, worldwide .
    Distributed since May, 2008
    Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the anti death penalty film “At the Death House Door”. It is, primarily, 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:.
    I encourage more fact checking.
    1) Pickett: (In 1989) “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. ” “I knew (executed inmate) Carlos (De Luna) didn’t do it.” (1)
    REPLY: There is this major problem. It appears that Rev. Pickett is, now, either lying about his own 1989 opinions or he is very confused.
    In 1999, 4 years after Rev. Pickett had left his death row ministry, and he had become an anti death penalty activist, 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?”
    Pickett’s reply: “I never felt that.”(2)
    For at least 15 years, Pickett 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!
    If he was 100% sure of DeLuna’s execution in 1989, what’s up with the PBS interview?.
    How could Rev. Pickett forget the only “innocent” person he saw executed – he was 100% sure of his innocence – on his watch? Wouldn’t anyone find that to be 100% impossible to forget, particularly when you are asked, specifically, about it during a formal interview?
    When is the first confirmable date that Rev. Pickett stated he believed in DeLuna’s actual innocence?
    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?
    2) Sara Hickman, musician, anti death penalty activist, and acquaintance of Pickett’s, wrote ” . . . Rev. Carroll Pickett (the death row minister who witnessed 95 executions in Huntsville; he is convinced that at least 15 of those men were innocent),. . . “. (3)
    Reply: In 1999 Rev. Pickett didn’t believe any of those 95 executed were innocent, now, in 2008, he is convinced that 15 innocents were executed. Quite remarkable, if true.
    Rev. Pickett can you tell us which 15 you are convinced were executed innocents? And what is your evidence? Or did Ms. Hickman get it wrong? Reverend?
    I have inquired with Ms. Hickman (sara@sarahickman.com) and Rev Pickett
    (carrollpickett57@gmail.com) but, so far, no reply.
    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: spoke of the Soldier of Fortune murder for hire case, stating the husband got the death penalty, while the hired murderer got 6 years. (1)
    Reply: Rev. Pickett’s point, here, appears to be 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.
    5) Pickett: “A great majority of them (the 95 executed inmates he ministered to) were black or Hispanic.” (1)
    Reply: The reverend’s point, here, appears 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%).
    6) 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?
    7) 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: Is the reverend not aware of DeLuna’s record? 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. Rev. Pickett?
    8) 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.
    9) 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.” (5)
    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? So, what? Did he just make this up?
    10) Pickett: stated that “doctors can’t (check the veins of inmates pending execution), it’s against the law.” (1)
    Reply: Ridiculous. Obviously untrue.
    11) 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) states, “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.
    12) 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.” (5)
    REPLY: I simply don’t believe it. Most? Would that be more than 47 out of 95? 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.
    13) 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
    1) “Chaplain Discusses ‘Death House’ Ministry”, Interview, Legal Affairs, FRESH AIR, NPR, May 19, 2007.
    2) “The Execution: Interview with Reverend Carroll Pickett”, PBS, FRONTLINE, 1999
    www(DOT)pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/pickett.html
    3) “Hickman: Texas needs to start a dialogue on the death penalty”, OTHER TAKES, Austin American-Statesman, July 30, 2008
    4) “Appellate court refuses to stay killer’s execution”, Kathy Fair, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star edition, 05/23/1991
    5) 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
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    NOTE: Sharp posts this identical comment wherever this movie is mentioned, including elsewhere on this blog as a part of his efforts to promote the death penalty.

  • Your Name

    Ms. Minow:
    If journalists and other writers fact checked anti death penalty claims,I wouldn’t do this, at all.
    Please note, in the other location, on this site, Mr.James was speaking of Rev. Pickett’s honesty.
    In light of my review of the core points of Rev. Pickett’s new anti death penalty ministry and James’ reliance on Rev. Pickett’s honesty, do you not find it, even somewhat curious, that neither has made any effort to “correct” any of my fact checking?
    I am not the least bit suprised, as they can find nothing to correct.
    Have you made any effort at fact checking, regarding my research, or any additonal comments of Rev Pickett?
    I suspect you have not.
    The truth really should matter. And, sometimes, fact checking is the only way to discern it. I contend, with voluminous support, that fact checking is the anti death penalty folks worste fear. Lucky, for them, as a near universal rule, journalists/writers don’t challenge the anti death penalty folks.

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