Monday, August 28, 2006

Part Two: The Execution of Carlos DeLuna

Reverend Carroll Pickett is the former death house chaplain at the Walls Unit in Huntsville from 1982-1995. Pickett ministered to ninety-five men on the final day of their lives and was present in the chamber during their executions.

He provides a first hand account of the execution of Carlos DeLuna in his book "Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain". According to Chicago Tribune, new evidence suggests the May 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna in Texas was a case of mistaken identity. You can read part one of this story by looking at our August 24 post.

In the fifteen years I served as the Death House chaplain, I sought psychological help only twice. Both occasions came in the wake of Carlos DeLuna’s death.

For several after his execution I could not sleep. Shrouded in depression, I went through my routine responsibilities like Zombie, ineffective and racked with a kind of guilt that I had never before experienced. I needed to talk to someone far removed from the world of prison life and criminal justice.

David Erb, the chaplain at the Dallas’s Presbyterian hospital, was a man whom I greatly respected. A brilliant Bible scholar and dedicated servant of god, he was aware of my role at the Walls and had extended an offer to provide me with council whenever I might need it.

On an early Monday morning I sat in his office, confining things I’d spoken of to no one else. I told him about the execution of Carlos DeLuna ad the oppressive guilt I was unable to shake. I questioned why compassion and human kindness had been so badly beaten down by anger and revenge that, at times, I had begun to wonder if perhaps I was one out of steps with the realities of the world. Had I reached a point where concern for men who had committed unthinkable evil blinded me to the pain and suffering of their victims?

My ministry, I confided, was becoming increasingly difficult.

For several hours he listened as I described the frustrations and the doubts, the sleepless nights and the ever-present lack of hope that regularly visited my own office. Mostly, however, I talked of the death penalty and the role that I played in it. And, for the first time, I questioned how much longer I could do it.

Finally, it was chaplain Erb who addresses the issue I’d been reluctant to verbalize. “I have to wonder,” he said, “if the basis of all the problems you are describing is your own feelings about the judicial system that makes it illegal to take a life. Do you believe in the death penalty?” he asked straightforwardly.

There, in the privacy of his office, I felt comfortable in the responding to a question that had been posed to friends by friends, coworkers, inmates, and the press, but which I had never answered. For the first time I was able to voice my belief without concern over the effect. “No,” I responded. “I do not believe its right. And with every execution that is carried out, that belief is stronger.”

It felt good to say so.

“Then you are wrestling with a dilemma no man should have forced on him,” the chaplain said. He invited me to return the following week to continue out discussion.

In the days that followed. I did a great deal of soul-searching pondering the responsibilities that had been given me, Tabulating the pluses and minuses of my life’s work. And for the all dark and disturbing concerns-the execution of a man who was clearly mentally ill, the possibility that innocent men might have died at the hands of inmates and families of victims alike-there was one belief that continued to return to my mind. It was my credo the firm basis of my decision to accept the role of Death House chaplain in the first place: no one, however troubled his past, however unforgivable his sins, should be made to die alone.

A man who had never aspired to be anything more than a caring country preacher, I knew, was not likely to dramatically change the world. He could, however, offer care and comfort whenever it might be needed. There was my answer.

I shared it with Chaplain Erb on my next visit. He did not seem surprised by what I had to say. “No one,” he said, “not even god Himself, would fault you if you chose to walk away. But the service you provide is of such importance. I’m pleased that you realize that.”

With that I returned to my calling.

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