At the Death House Door

Editor’s note: We originally ran this review on 29 May 2008. The film is re-airing tonight on IFC. At the Death House Door is on the shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

I’ve always believed the death penalty will deter death. I’m confident that we’re executing the worst of the worst.

— Governor George W. Bush, on the occasion of Karla Faye Tucker’s execution, 1998

“I was minister to 95 who were put to death by lethal injection. I never intended to do 95. In fact, I never intended to do one, but it happened.” As Reverend Carroll Pickett contemplates the unexpected turns of his long life, he’s making his way through the cemetery outside the Huntsville Prison in east Texas. Here he ministered to nearly a hundred death row inmates as they were executed, and here he came to rethink capital punishment.

Pickett grew up believing in the death penalty, as a form of swift, sure punishment. “We were taught,” he remembers in the extraordinary documentary, At the Death House Door, “‘Hang ’em fast, hang ’em high,'” by a father who held hard to his faith in the justice system. “My father was a bitter man,” he says,” owing at least in part to the fact that his own father (Carroll’s grandfather) had been murdered. But the other key point for Pickett was how he came to his assignment as death row minister, following the 1974 siege at the Huntsville State Prison. Inmates held hostages for 11 days, including two women in Pickett’s local ministry. Called in to speak with the hostages’ families, Pickett saw the results after 11 days of negotiations: two inmates dead (the leader, Fred Gomez Carrasco, by suicide), and Pickett’s parishioners also dead, one shot five times in the back.

Telling this story and many others over the course of the film, which premieres 29 May on IFC Channel, Pickett appears simultaneously serene and deeply saddened. At times the weight of his experience is nearly palpable, even as he remains, to some extent, his father’s son, resolute and stoic. Pickett keeps a scrapbook of his time at the prison, a job he took, he notes, in order to be spend more time at home (his daughter Charlotte recalls, “He was never home, he was just always gone,” as Pickett explains, “I couldn’t share with them what was going on inside a death house. That was me”). Pickett also notes the irony of his being asked to minister to the surviving hostage taker, Ignacio Puedes, during his execution following the reinstatement of the death penalty in Texas in 1976. Though he never told Puedes of his connection to his case, Pickett remembers speaking with his dead parishoner’s children. “Both of them said to me, ‘This does not bring closure. My children will never have a grandmother and there is nothing that happened in that building that can bring her back. My mother’s dead, he’s dead. That’s just two dead people,'” Pickett says, “And that’ll stay with me forever.”

The bulk of Pickett’s daily work during his 16 years at the prison involved general population inmates (he introduced a music program and choir into their routine, he says, because “I always believed that music has charms to soothe the savage beast, I had a bunch of beasts in there”). But it’s plain that he was overpoweringly affected by his part in the executions. For one thing, he made audiotapes following each death, recording his understanding of what happened, how he felt, and how he saw the prisoner during his last moments on earth.

These tapes provide At the Death House Door a profound sort of narrative, political, and moral structure. Repeatedly Pickett appears looking over his box of tapes, each marked with a name and date, each full of sorrow and remarkable detail concerning what the prisoner ate, how he looked and what he said, how Pickett held his ankle or what he said in prayer. The stories on the tapes are intimate, careful, and anguished; as Pickett’s second wife Jane puts it, “Those tapes must be his tears.” He started making them before he married her, during the eight years after his divorce, when he was returning to an empty house. In his tape following the Puedes execution, for example, Pickett’s voice suggests pain and frustration that, after months of confessing to Pickett and seeking forgiveness for his sins, “He turned and looked at the people, and he whispered in Spanish, ‘I am innocent.'” Pickett’s voice drops, as he continues, “In public, you have been so programmed by the law and lawyers and your own pride and ego that you still profess your innocence.”

Here, even as he’s angry at Puedes, Pickett indicates his sense way back in 1976 that something is wrong with the legal and political system premised on ritualistic death. This sense only becomes more acute as Pickett tends to more inmates, not because they are innocent, necessarily, but because the punishment does not actually “work.” It does not deter crime, does not help survivors cope, and is sometimes abjectly unjust. As Pickett describes his box of tapes, “Some of these are well known people, some are unknown, and others I know weren’t guilty of the crime for which they were put to death.”

This is the case, Pickett believes, for Carlos DeLuna, executed in 1989. Convicted of murdering a gas station attendant, DeLuna maintained his innocence even as he died, and spent his years on death row earning his high school diploma and taking college courses. Long after after his execution, Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maury Possley begin investigating. They published their findings in a 2006 three-part series, and during the film, visit with Carlos’ sister, Rose Rhoton. Even as the reporters embody a familiar sort of outrage at discrimination and corruption, Rhoton’s complicated response provides At the Death House Door with a devastating counterweight.

Rhoton’s story is premised on loss, an intensely different kind of loss than Pickett’s. As he chronicles his loss of confidence in legal and political machinery (by the end of the film, he’s working with the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, speaking out against institutional racism and classism), she describes her family’s difficult background in Corpus Christi, her brother’s loss of direction, and her own inability to help him. “He wasn’t a confrontation person,” she remembers him as a boy afraid of a Chihuahua. She and her husband hired lawyers to help Carlos through appeals, but now she blames herself for believing what the lawyers told her, for raising doubts in her own mind as to her brother’s innocence.

Rhoton’s story is the crucial flipside of Pickett’s. As a white man in Texas, he came up believing in a system that was built to protect him, to recognize, define, and punish those who threatened him and his neighbors. Rhoton and her siblings lived elsewhere, where legal and other structures were set against them. As she watched her brother wrongly convicted and killed, Rhoton swore to herself that she would find another way. A shot of her running feet during an early morning workout is accompanied by Rhoton’s voiceover: “By Carlos going through this,” she says, “I made myself a promise that I wasn’t going to be this uneducated Mexican person and that pushed me to better my life.” Today she lives a “better” life, but she is haunted by the unfairness of the world in which her brother lived and died. If Pickett’s story is one of conversion, hers is one of sorrow, regret, and incredible strength in the face of always knowing how the world works.

RATING 9 / 10