Over the course of 13 years, Pastor Carroll Pickett, the death house chaplain in the infamous "Walls" prison unit in Huntsville, Texas, presided over 95 executions, including the world’s first lethal injection.
Tomorrow (Thursday) night at 9pm IFC premieres their exceptional original documentary At The Death House Door. The film tracks Carroll Pickett’s slow motion, 35-year journey from death penalty supporter to humble activist campaigning to end what he feels is a barbaric practice. (IFC Trailer, below)
At The Death House Door is co-produced and co-directed by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (the forces behind Hoop Dreams). The film recently won the Inspiration Award at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Devoid of a sweeping sentimental and emotionally charged score, At The Death House Door is also a spare and somber unmasking of the Texas culture of execution. The film does not appeal to the heart so much as the head, but by the end you will still be left reeling. It’s an intimate peek inside a world most of us choose not to see.
Pickett’s long, difficult journey began in 1974. He was called to minister to the families of his church congregation during a horrific, eleven day hostage crisis at the Huntsville prison. Two members of his congregation - Judy Standley, a prison librarian, and Yvonne Beseda, a teacher - were taken hostage in the prison and eventually murdered.
Wrenchingly, Pickett describes a phone conversation with the two women during which they asked him to carry out their funeral arrangements. "They knew they were going to die," said Pickett.
It’s this moment that establishes the character of Pickett and makes him a most unlikely opponent of the death penalty. In fact, Pickett at one time was an ardent supporter.
In 1979, as his first marriage crumbled, he was called to minister at the prison. Soon, the State of Texas reinstated the death penalty using a new method of lethal injection. The warden appointed Pickett the "death house chaplain." His assignment was to calm the prisoners in their last moments and ensure a smooth execution process.
Immediately after each execution, Pickett taped his troubled thoughts on a small cassette recorder. These difficult and revealing recordings are unveiled for the first time in the film. "I stayed with them from six o’clock in the morning until they were executed after midnight and I was scared to death," said Pickett.
But it was the execution of Carlos De Luna, a petty criminal convicted of stabbing a gas station clerk, that shook Pickett to his core. De Luna was found hiding under a car near the scene, but otherwise there was little evidence against him. In what appears to be a case of prosecutorial misconduct, he was convicted and sentenced to die. De Luna vigorously maintained his innocence to the end, yet he was executed in 1989 at the age of 27.
Pickett felt strongly that De Luna was innocent. On the day of the execution DeLuna asked Pickett if he could call him "Daddy." After assuring De Luna that his passing would be quick and painless, Pickett instead held De Luna’s hand as he endured a torturous 11-minute death when the drug cocktail failed to sedate him.
Woven throughout the documentary is the story of two determined Chicago Tribune investigative reporters, Steve Mills and Maury Possley. In 2005, Mills and Maury began to dig into inconsistencies in the De Luna case and the failures of the Texas justice system.
The Chicago Tribune championed the project and funded the first shoot in Texas. The Tribune also supplied the archival material on the De Luna story.
There is other collateral damage, too - De Luna’s family and the sad, bent Fred Allen, a guard in the death house whose assignment was to spend the execution day with each inmate and remove their body afterwards. After 120 executions, Allen suffered a breakdown. He was finally pushed over the edge by the execution of Karla Fay Tucker, the born again pickax murderess mocked by then Governor George Bush.
Pastor Pickett left the death house to become a forceful, credible advocate for change. The film closes with the State of Texas’ 400th execution by lethal injection and Carlos De Lunas’ last words: "I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on the Death Row to keep the faith and don’t give up."