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At the Death House Door

Compelling new documentary proves powerful organizing tool

Few on either side of the death penalty debate have witnessed the final walk of a condemned prisoner to the death chamber.  Appeals exhausted, there is no hope, save a last minute stay from the governor.  Pastor Carroll Pickett was there for nearly 100 such walks.  In an extraordinary new documentary, At the Death House Door, Pastor Pickett shares his experience - and all it ultimately stirred in him - alongside the stories of some of the men he walked with during his 15 years as chaplain at our nation's busiest death house in Huntsville, TX.

Pickett's introduction to the prison system came in a tragic and violent way.  In 1974, a group of inmates took control of the Walls Unit of the prison in Huntsville.  Two women who were members of Pickett's local Presbyterian congregation were held hostage, and both were killed when police stormed the facility and ended the standoff.  With his own blend of stoicism and fire - a disposition the viewer becomes intimately familiar with by the film's end - Pickett describes the immense rage he shared with his church members, and the visceral hatred he had for the prisoners who had orchestrated the siege.  

Throughout the film, we come to know Pastor Pickett as a dedicated and diligent person - qualities that make him a highly dedicated pastor and community servant, including serving as president of the local school board.  His devotion to his ministry and community ultimately cause considerable tensions within his also-valued family life.  Seeking more time with his family, he retired from his position as senior pastor and accepts the position as chaplain at the same Huntsville prison where his parishioners had been killed years before.  He began his work at the Walls Unit as a supporter of the death penalty - especially for people like the one inmate who had survived the 1974 siege and sat on death row for the hostage murders.  Pastor Picket had personally ministered at the funerals of both women; never did he ever think that he would ever be called on to minister to the man responsible for killing them.

The country's first execution by lethal injection took place in Texas in 1982, and Chaplain Pickett was called to minister to inmate Charles Brooks, Jr. before he was killed.  After Brooks' execution - and every one of the 94 that followed - the pastor would go home and talk into a cassette recorder, purging his thoughts to a strip of magnetic tape so to spare his family from hearing about the horror of his night's work.  Excerpts of these recordings are central to the film's narrative of Pickett, a moment-to-moment, slow evolution as his views on the death penalty grow more complex and intentional.  Rev. Pickett's audio entries remember not only many of the men who were executed, but the toll his involvement in those executions took on him and his familial relationships.  

Pickett's confidence in the death penalty's value was gradually tested and eventually broke down altogether.  Two moments - both executions - play particularly prominent in the drama of his conversion.  The first came in 1989, with the execution of Carlos De Luna, a man who maintained his innocence up until his last day.  De Luna's claims were so convincing that Pickett is to this day deeply troubled by his case.  The film only adds to the compelling case of De Luna's innocence that became national news in 2007.
A final blow to Pickett's support for capital punishment came in 1991, with the execution of Ignacio Cuevas, the man sentenced to die for the murders of his former parishioners.  Nearly two decades having passed since the tragedy, the seething rage and hatred that Pickett had once felt had subsided.  Yet still conflicted, he felt reluctant to perform his usual spiritual duties at Cuevas' execution.  Pickett does accompany Cuevas in his final moments, but it is the children of one Cuevas' victims who transform his core beliefs in a moment he says, "that'll stay with me forever":  

Both of them said to me, "This does not bring closure. My children will never have a grandmother and there is nothing that happened in that building that can bring her back. My mother's dead, he's dead. That's just two dead people."  

At the Death House Door certainly holds its own cinematically - but it's also a fantastic organizing tool.  In early May, MD CASE, along with some University of Maryland students, screened the film at the university.  Attendees were eager to talk more about the issue upon the film's end, and a few students even volunteered that the experience turned them into death penalty opponents.  It is especially powerful for people of faith.  Pastor Pickett's spiritual shift on the death penalty is testament to the powers of forgiveness and an open heart and  mind.