Witness in death

A former death-row chaplain comes clean about capital punishment in At the Death House Door.

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SIGNS OF THE CROSS Pickett visits the condemned dead of Texas at their eternal home.

SIGNS OF THE CROSS Pickett visits the condemned dead of Texas at their eternal home. Photograph: Kevin Horan/IFC

“The biggest and most important thing is, I believe and always believed and always will believe that no one should die alone,” says pastor Carroll Pickett, who for 15 years ministered to death-row inmates at the “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville, Texas. “Somebody should be with them who cares for them as people.”

Starting in 1979, three years after the Supreme Court reversed itself and declared capital punishment legal, the soft-spoken Pickett was present for 95 executions, before leaving the prison system and becoming an anti-death-penalty activist in 2004. Now 73, he’s the ostensible subject of At the Death House Door, a documentary by Hoop Dreams directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert that debuts Thursday 29 on the Independent Film Channel. But the movie, like Pickett, proves more complex than its placid surface suggests: As terse and subdued as Hoop Dreams was expansive and exuberant, Death House slowly and subtly reveals itself to be about far more than one pastor’s life. It’s about the politics and ethics of the death penalty, the human flaws that prevent it from being carried out equitably and consistently, and the moral calculus that those involved must go through to be able to sleep at night.

Exhibit A is Pickett’s relationship with Carlos De Luna, a man convicted of stabbing a gas-station clerk to death in 1983. The case against De Luna was weak from the start: He was found in the vicinity of the crime but had no blood on his clothing, and he left no fingerprints at the scene of the murder—yet he was still convicted and sentenced to death. De Luna insisted that the killing was committed by Carlos Hernandez, a criminal acquaintance who physically resembled him—an assertion later proved correct by Chicago Tribune reporters Maury Possley and Steve Mills, who are interviewed in Death House. Their 2005 articles about the case claimed that Hernandez brazenly bragged to friends that De Luna had taken the fall for him. Even though De Luna knew exactly how he had been wronged and who had wronged him, he accepted his fate. So did his sister, Rose Rhoton, who now tells the filmmakers she wishes she hadn’t deferred to lawyers who either believed De Luna was guilty or didn’t think his innocence could be proved.

“It was obvious that this fellow was innocent,” Pickett now says, “and as we continued there, it became harder to deny that there were others that shouldn’t have been there either. There were the mentally ill, those who had no education and other ones who were not what some people have said: ‘the worst of the worst.’ I began to see more and more that we were killing people who could have been, I don’t know… I don’t use the word rehabilitated, because that doesn’t mean anything. I like the word restored—restored in justice.”

A culture of stoic social conditioning and deference to authority links Rhoton, De Luna, Pickett and many other characters in Death House. Pickett reminisces on camera about his father, an enthusiastic death-penalty supporter whose own dad was murdered, and who disciplined his children with a belt and taught them that crying was a sign of weakness. The elder Pickett’s legacy becomes clear in a heartbreaking scene in which the pastor recalls how De Luna—who grew up poor and was neglected by his own mostly absent father—asked permission to call Pickett “Daddy.” As Pickett remembers the moment, he seems on the verge of breaking down in tears, then swallows his pain and continues speaking calmly. Gilbert and James thread their themes of sublimation and repression through the narrative via audio snippets of astoundingly intimate confessional cassette recordings that Pickett made after each execution— recordings that his second wife describes as “his tears.”

“This movie was so much a process of reflection for him,” says codirector James, who had set out with Gilbert to follow the Tribune reporters but eventually gravitated toward Pickett. “Like the audio tapes, and like his book, the film was a kind of therapy, I think.” James says that while Pickett’s 2002 memoir, Within These Walls, was straightforward and fascinating, he and Gilbert were convinced “he was holding something back,” and half-jokingly adds that they would like to do another documentary about Pickett and try to dig even deeper.

“That scene where he looks like he’s about to cry and doesn’t, that was very familiar to me,” says Gilbert. “That’s my father. That’s my father’s generation.” Adds James, “I can’t imagine doing what he did for all the years that he did it. If he had been an emotional person, he couldn’t have gotten through it.”

At the Death House Door premieres Thu 29 at 9pm on IFC.

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