May 28, 2008

300 Words About: At The Death House Door

I was very excited to learn that Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the filmmakers behind a little documentary called Hoop Dreams, were collaborating on another project, this time exploring the always controversial issue of the death penalty. At the Death House Door (premiering tomorrow night on IFC) is an intimate look at the life and career of the Reverend Carroll Pickett, chaplain for 15 years at the death house (not death row) of the notorious Huntsville (TX) Prison.

While James and Gilbert focus primarily on Pickett's transformation from a supporter of the death penalty to an outspoken advocate for its abolition, they also examine the case of Carlos De Luna, who was wrongly executed under Pickett's supervision in 1989. The two stories are introduced immediately but they don't gel until we meet De Luna's sister toward the end of the film. In other words, we have two good threads instead of one great thread, and the documentary's potential is unrealized. Just to get the negatives out of the way - the film also runs a little long and the sound is at times almost inaudible. It was if James and Gilbert only used a boom mike, which I wouldn't recommend for a scene in which we're supposed to be listening to 20 year-old cassette tape recordings of a man mumbling in a Southern drawl.

This is not to say At the Death House Door doesn't have a story worth telling. Although Pickett was reluctant to take the job, he still supported capital punishment. Huntsville is the execution capital of the U.S., remember, and a place disconcertingly proud of the attention it receives because of it ("Killer Burgers" and "Murder Meals" are local favorites). Over the course of the 95 lethal injections he witnessed - several of which were botched, including one that lasted 11 minutes - Pickett became severely depressed. But as God's servant, he felt his "duty" was to comfort these men in their last minutes, even if he thought they may be innocent, and even after he was against the practice altogether.

Had James and Gilbert thrown their energy entirely behind Pickett's story, I think At the Death House Door would have been a devastatingly poignant (albeit overwhelmingly depressing) film, but as it is, I can only call it important and ambitious.


  1. Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted "At the Death House Door"?
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

    Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the anti death penalty film "At the Death House Door". It is 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. The reverend is an anti death penalty activist.

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

    1) 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 and nothing more.

    More than that, it appears that Rev. Pickett is, now, either lying about his own opinions or he is very confused. Read on.

    2) 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 Rev. Pickett's poor judgement or something else.

    There is this major problem.

    In 1999, years after Rev. Pickett had left his death row ministry, and 10 years after De Luna's execution, the reverend was asked, in a PBS Frontline interview, "Do you think there have been some you have watched die who were strictly innocent?"

    His reply: "I never felt that." (3)

    For many years, and since the 1989 execution of Carlos De Luna, the reverend never felt that any of the 95 executed were actually innocent.

    This directly conflicts with his current statements on Carlos De Luna. Rev. Pickett is, now, saying that he was 100% sure of De Luna's innocence in 1989!

    It appears the reverend has either revised history to support his new anti death penalty activism - he's lying - or he is, again, very confused. Reverend?

    3) Introduction: In 1974, prison librarian Judy Standley and teacher Von Beseda were murdered during an 11 day prison siege and escape attempt. Ignacio Cuevas was sentenced to death, as one of three prisoners who were involved. The other two died in the shootout.

    Ms. Standley and Ms. Beseda were part of Rev. Pickett's congregation, outside of prison.

    Pickett: After Cuevas was executed, Rev. Pickett alleges that he met with Judy Standley's family and they told the reverend that "This (the execution) didn't bring closure." "This didn't help us." According to Rev. Pickett, "They didn't want him (Ignacio Cuevas) executed." (1)

    Reply; There might be a big problem. Judy Standley's five children wrote a statement, before the execution, which stated: "We are relieved the ordeal may almost be over, but we are also aware that to some, this case represents only one of many in which, arguably, `justice delayed is justice denied," "We are hopeful the sentence will finally be carried out and that justice will at last be served," said the statement, signed by Ty, Dru, Mark, Pam and Stuart Standley. (4)

    Sure seemed like the kids wanted Cuevas to be executed. Doesn't it? Reverend?

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

    Reply: The reverend's point, here, is to emphasize the alleged racist nature of the death penalty. There is a problem for the reverend - the facts - the "great majority" were 47 white (49%) with 32 black (34%), and 16 Hispanic (17%).

    5) 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. Rev. Pickett's point, here, seems to be that capital murderers are, almost all, idiots who can't be held responsible for their actions. But, there are more fact problems for the reverend. 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 true innocent murder victims and those that weren't old enough for school?

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

    Reply: Rev. Pickett's point, here, was the unfairness of the sentence disparity. More fact problems. John Wayne Hearn, the hitman, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sandra Black.

    7) 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. Minutes later, 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 concedes the point.

    8) 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: More fact problems. 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.

    Facts: What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence, rather than seeking a life 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 (less than 2%). 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?

    9) Pickett: stated that "doctors can't (check the veins of inmates pending execution), it's against the law." (1)

    Reply: Ridiculous. Obviously untrue.

    10) 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) stetes, "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 (NOTE: as in human lethal injection). Only for pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) are there substantial indications that the agent may also be given intramuscularly in a dosage of 40 mg. (NOTE: That is how effective the second drug in human lethal injection is, that it can be given intramuscularly and still hasten death).

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

    11) 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 47 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.

    12) Pickett: said an inmate said "its burning" "its 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?

    Bottom line. Reverend Pickett's credibility is as high as a snakes belly.

    Time to edit the movie?!


    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, 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

    4) "Appellate court refuses to stay killer's execution", Kathy Fair, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star edition, 05/23/1991

  2. Welcome, Dudley, and thanks for your comment.

    While I don't think James and Gilbert were taking as hard a line against the death penalty as you did, I can certainly see how you, an outspoken proponent of it, may have felt excluded from the conversation. No one from an organization like yours is interviewed, nor are the victims' families who for all we know may think justice was served with those executions.

    However, I found ATDHD to be a study of one man's character and career more than an out and out attack on capital punishment. Yes, it happens that the subject is now an anti-death penalty activist, but it's possible (though I admit unlikely) that his views aren't fully shared by the filmmakers. So I try to separate the two, in the interest of fairness.

    Your problem seems to be a personal one with Pickett than it does the film, anyway. I find it ironic that you were formerly an opponent of the death penalty. Your stories have reversed.

    I appreciate your point-for-point breakdown of some of Pickett's statements, but if I can make a suggestion, I would say that your kind of missing the heart of the matter. It's true that many anti-death penalty activists use statistics and demographics to plead their case, but the large majority of opponents are against it simply because they don't think the government should kill someone, regardless of the method and regardless of their age, race, education level, mental status or even guilt and innocence. It's not only that the wrong people are being killed, but that any people are being killed.

    Well you can probably tell where I'm coming from, but I'm also offering you a suggestion for refining your argument. Good luck.

  3. Well said, Daniel. I agree with every word of response you wrote.

    In case you're interested, I reviewed another death penalty doc, Deadline, that brings a lot of angles to the story pretty effectively. (

  4. Great response Daniel, particularly your highlighting of the bigger picture. And kudos to you for not getting angry like I am right now.

  5. Thanks, Marilyn. I see from your post that the issue really is difficult to capture as a doc, at least from a critical standpoint. Obviously, I agree with you that films around these issues are vitally important even if they aren't perfect.

    The best one I've seen, by far, is After Innocence. That film, along with this article, should provide some food for thought, though they are more about DNA exoneration than the death penalty and they don't get to the heart of the issue as I mention in the last comment.

    Thanks, Craig. My immediate reaction was disappointment, especially since the same people came out of the woodwork after my MLK, Jr. post. But I'm fine with it if it relates to a film and I'm glad people feel free to comment anyway. That's part of the deal here.

  6. It's an issue worth debating on all sides, but it's troubling to see the same smoke screen tactics used time and time again in an effort to keep your attention away from the real issue at hand.

  7. Exactly. It's why you can hardly find honest news these days, especially with something like election coverage. People are too lazy and/or fearful of facts and critical thinking these days, no matter the issue - let's just resort to name-calling and sensationalism instead.

  8. Seems to me that dudleysharp was reviewing the death penalty while you were reviewing the movie. It also seems that you were right on that he has something personal against the Reverend.

    I probably wouldn't have been as patient as you.

    Good review and answer.

  9. Thanks, Rick. Patience is a virtue. Just like movie blogging.

    I just remembered a disturbingly amusing note: the woman who introduced the screening I attended said she was "just dying to see this film."


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