At The Death House Door

At The Death House Door

At The Death House Door (2008, Directors: Steve James and Peter Gilbert): Directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert won were nominated for an Oscar for their work together on Hoop Dreams in 1995, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their latest collaboration isn’t recognized with at least a nomination at Oscar time next year. At the Death House Door introduces us to Reverend Carroll “Bud” Pickett, a retired Presbyterian minister in Huntsville, Texas. As he recounts, Huntsville used to be known for the rodeo, but over the past forty years or so, it’s become famous for all of its prisons. Reverend Pickett never intended to become a prison chaplain, but that’s what he ended up doing. For 15 years during the 80s and 90s, he served as the “death house” chaplain, the man with whom condemned prisoners spent their last day on earth. He would sit with them during the day, listen to whatever they wanted to say, eat their last meal with them, and, when the time came, just after midnight, accompany them the short walk into the room where they would be strapped down and lethally injected. Reverend Pickett did this 95 times, and after each execution, he came home and recorded an audio cassette with his thoughts. Unable to share the pain of this ministry with his family, and prevented by his hard Texas upbringing from crying freely, he poured his heart out for the tape recorder instead. Remarkably, with a few exceptions, he had never listened to these tapes again after making them.

Meanwhile, Maury Possley and Steve Mills, a pair of investigative reporters from the Chicago Tribune had begun writing a series about possible cases of wrongful execution. One of the stories they uncovered was that of Carlos DeLuna, a young man from Corpus Christi, Texas, who was convicted of the 1982 stabbing death of a gas station attendant. The police found him hiding under a truck shortly after the stabbing, and although he had no blood on him at all, and claimed innocence, he was arrested, tried, and convicted. DeLuna maintained his innocence and claimed that an acquaintance, Carlos Hernandez, was responsible for the killing, although no one, even his lawyers, listened. In 1989, he was executed at the young age of 27. Reverend Pickett was with him when he died, and despite claims that lethal injection is quick and painless, he reported that DeLuna didn’t respond to the first drug, a sedative, and took 11 long minutes to die.

Possley and Mills visit with Pickett and discover his archive of tapes. He tells them that of all the prisoners he knew, DeLuna was the one that he was convinced was completely innocent. Over the years, the strain of the job had nagged him, but especially the notion that he was party to the execution of an innocent man. Although he had been a strong proponent of the death penalty when he started the job, after accompanying so many men to the death chamber, his opinion had completely changed. Whether they were guilty or innocent, Pickett cherished the time spent with the men, even as it strained him to be so powerless over their fates.

We spend the majority of the film with Reverend Pickett, certainly a fascinating character, but there are some other characters, including DeLuna’s sister Rose, who still lives with the guilt that she should have done more. Pickett also introduces us to a younger colleague who worked as a death house guard until the strain of working in an institutional death factory drove him to a breakdown. Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state and it’s clear that capital punishment is not deterring anyone. Not only that, it’s creating more victims as we see the families of prisoners suffer. Worse, it dehumanizes everyone involved in the process, from the prisoner himself to the prison guards and chaplains who work for the state.

In one chilling scene, the camera floats around the prison as Texas executes its 400th prisoner. We watch from a distance as the man’s family are allowed access into the prison for their last visit, and then we see the guards bringing out the man’s personal effects in bags and dumping them outside the gates like so much garbage. Soon the man’s body will be taken out in much the same way. It’s heartbreaking.

Even as he came to strongly disagree with capital punishment, Reverend Pickett continued his ministry to these condemned men, firstly because he “wasn’t a quitter,” but more importantly, because they needed a friend at this moment, someone who would be there right until the end, even as their families were banished. Sadly, he informs us that the Texas prison system recently changed the system. Instead of having 18 hours with the prisoner, now they’re brought into the death house at 4:00pm, showered, fed, and then executed at 6:00pm. The chaplain barely has time to say a few words. One wonders if this change is meant to inflict even more pain on the prisoner, denying them any meaningful human contact at all.

At the Death House Door is deeply meditative, due in major part to the character of Reverend Pickett, a man who has been indelibly marked by his work. It has made him question his politics, his opinions, even his faith. It has estranged him at times from his wife and his children. But he made these sacrifices because he truly believes no one should die alone. Wherever you stand on the question of capital punishment, this film will make you think about the people we ask to do the unthinkable.

Here is the Q&A with directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert from after the screening:

Duration: 16:25

Offical site of the film
IFC’s Screening Party Kit


This entry was posted in Documentaries, Film Festivals, Hot Docs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to At The Death House Door

  1. Jay Kerr says:

    Damn. I skipped this film last night because I had to get some work done. Sounds like I missed a great film.

  2. doc holiday says:

    Great review, but one quibble: Hoop Dreams wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar in 1995. The winner that year was the entirely forgettable Anne Frank Remembered.

  3. James McNally says:

    Thanks, Doc. You’re right. They were nominated for Best Editing, but lost to Forrest Gump! The documentary Oscar went to Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. The Anne Frank film was made in 1995 but won an Oscar in 1996. That brings me to an annoying point. Are they the 1995 Oscars if they take place in 1995 but honour films made in 1994? Confusing!

  4. doc holiday says:

    Oh yes. That was the year the Academy gave the documentary Oscar to the head of is documentary division. I’ll have to watch Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision one day and see how much of a travesty that really was. Must remember to put that on my want list.

  5. Dudley Sharp says:

    Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

    Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the film “At the Death House Door”, a film 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 and the Reverend is an anti death penalty activist.

    Below are comments or paraphrases of Rev. Pickett, taken from interviews, followed by my Reply:.

    Pickett: “A great majority of them (the 95 executed inmates he ministered to) were black or Hispanic.” (1)

    Reply: The “great majority” were 47 white (49%) with 32 black (34%), and 16 Hispanic (17%).

    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. 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 innocent murder victims and those that weren’t old enough for school?

    Pickett: spoke of the Soldier of Fortune murder for hire case, stating the husband got death, while the hired murderer got 6 years. (1)

    Reply: In this well known case. John Wayne Hearn, the hitman, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sandra Black.

    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. 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: 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. It means absolutely nothing.

    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 Pickett’s poor judgement or something else.

    And there is this major problem.

    In 1999, after Rev. Pickett had left his death row ministry, he was asked, “Do you think there have been some you have watched die who were strictly innocent?”

    His reply: “I never felt that.” (3)

    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: That may be Rev. Pickett’s opinion, but 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. His assertion is totally contradicted by the facts.

    Facts: What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death 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. 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?

    Pickett: stated that “doctors can’t (check the veins of inmates pending execution), it’s against the law.” (1)

    Reply: Ridiculous.

    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): “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. Only for pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) are there substantial indications that the agent may also be given intramuscularly in a dosage of 40 mg.

    Just like execution/lethal injection in the US, although we give a third drug which speeds up death.

    Pickett: said an inmate said “it’s burning, it’s 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?

    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 48 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. The murder is wrong and there are various sanctions for committing that wrong, including execution.

    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 [email protected], 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


    www(dot) (Sweden)

    1) “Chaplain Discusses ‘Death House’ Ministry”, Interview, Legal Affairs, FRESH AIR, NPR, May 19, 2007.


    3) “The Execution: Interview with Reverend Carroll Pickett”, PBS, FRONTLINE, 1999

Comments are closed.