For 15 years, the Rev. Carroll Pickett was a witness to state-sanctioned death. As a prison chaplain in Hunstville, he presided over 95 executions. After each one, Mr. Pickett recorded his thoughts on tape. The documentary At the Death House Door chronicles his anguish as he eventually concludes that some of the men he led to death were innocent.
Dallas Morning News editorial writer Colleen McCain Nelson interviewed Mr. Pickett via e-mail this week:
You witnessed dozens of executions as prison chaplain. Why did you feel called to do that job?
In my first church in Sinton, Texas, I promised a man he would not have to die alone. I kept that promise throughout my ministry. The prison hospital was on my unit, and I had hundreds of people die, and I tried to be there. These are human beings, and everyone should have a friend when they die.
Initially, you supported the death penalty. Why?
I was raised in Texas, the Wild West. I was taught that this was necessary. I was at the prison in 1974 when two of my church members were murdered in the longest prison siege in history. I had to tell two families that their mothers were killed, and I conducted their funerals. I thought this was justice.
After each execution, you recorded a tape about what you had seen. What purpose did that serve?
Living alone at the time that I started executions in 1982, I came home after the first, and I had to talk. ... I decided to talk to a machine and get it all out. It helped make a traumatic experience a little more bearable.
You spent time with inmates during their final hours. Did they confess their crimes? Proclaim their innocence?
Yes, and more. There were many who did not commit the crime, and their innocence was the basic topic for the entire day and night. These were difficult since I knew some of them were not the people who pulled the triggers. Some were victims of the law of parties. Some were fully innocent.
When did doubts about capital punishment begin to creep into your thoughts?
Maybe it was the first [execution]. But it became very real with one of the first [executions of someone who] did not pull the trigger. ...Then, I began to visit with families of the victims who found no closure. ... It was not a deterrent to anyone except the one who was executed.
Was there a pivotal moment that changed your mind about the death penalty?
No, it was a period of growth. But I watched a young man die who called me "Daddy." I knew that he was innocent, and another inmate in another unit bragged about doing the murder. My inmate took the fall. That was a strong factor.
Do you believe that you saw innocent men executed?
Absolutely. If a man is killed for just being [at the scene of a crime], to me, he was innocent. And others did not commit the crimes. Others just didn't have the means, the money, or the legal system to help them.
Many of the condemned inmates were guilty of heinous crimes. How do you answer the victims' families who want to see a loved one's killer put to death?
What does it accomplish? It doesn't bring their loved one back. There is no such thing as closure.
You've said there's a better way to ensure justice. What would you propose?
Accept the fact that there is a possibility that innocent people have been and will be executed. Accept the fact that people can grow and change and repent and can be useful to the world, even in prison. ... Lethal injection is still cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by our country's laws.
Despite declining support for the death penalty in other parts of the country, Texas hasn't wavered. Do you hold out hope for convincing state leaders that death by prison is a viable alternative?
Absolutely. If our state leaders who hold the keys to life and death in Texas would watch just one execution, and if that happened to be one of the botched executions, I know they would change. We have had some wonderful wardens and correctional officers and staff members who had had enough, and I believe state officials would get a truer picture of what murder by needles really is.