COLUMBIA — The Rev. Carroll Pickett talked quietly into his tape recorder on Dec. 7, 1982. It was 4:30 a.m. and he couldn’t sleep. Midnight had come and gone, and with it passed his first execution — the nation’s first execution using lethal injection.
After an hour and a half, Pickett had made his peace. He labeled and dated the tape and slid it into a case. A piece of Scotch tape was meant to seal in the memory, but Pickett would never forget the night he passed with Charlie Brooks, or the 94 other men he saw die throughout his career.
The documentary “At the Death House Door,” showing at 7 p.m. today at the St. Thomas More Newman Center, focuses on Pickett and the 15 years he spent as the “death house chaplain” in Huntsville, Texas. Throughout his time there, Pickett counseled and consoled 95 death row inmates. Raised by a father who supported capital punishment, Pickett initially supported the death penalty; however, after watching young inmates die, Pickett, 74, changed his stance.
He didn’t set out to be the activist he’s become. He’d been preaching and counseling for 30 years in a hospital for inmates, but when he was asked to counsel those awaiting execution, Pickett couldn’t say no.
“It wasn’t in my job description,” Pickett said from Chicago where he is currently promoting the film. “But I respected the warden. They asked me to do it and I did it.”
Pickett was no stranger to death. He’d seen inmates die from cancer, heart problems and AIDS in the hospital, but there was something different about watching healthy young men take their last breath.
Carlos De Luna was the last straw. Pickett said he believed the young man to be innocent of the murder he was charged with. According to a press release, the film focuses on De Luna’s case and tracks an investigation by the Chicago Tribune that found evidence suggesting his innocence. De Luna’s execution is still fresh in Pickett’s mind. “I remember those big brown eyes looking up at me. He kept pulling his head up off the table because the lethal injection drugs weren’t working right. He was trying to tell me something,” Pickett said. “I’ve always wondered what he was trying to say.”
The effects of Pickett’s job were not only emotional. After he retired from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Pickett underwent triple bypass surgery and had stints placed in his heart.
“My doctors said it was from the stress,” Pickett said. “It tore my body apart.”
Until two years ago, the 95 tapes that Pickett made after the executions he witnessed lay hidden in the back of his entertainment center. He never listened to the tapes. His family never found them.
Instead, he said they served as a form of therapy, where he could get out his concerns and grief and then move on.
The documentary afforded him the chance to break his Scotch tape seal and re-live the experiences he recorded all those years ago.
“I was brought back to each particular event. I could remember things about each particular man, each particular human,” Pickett said. “I listened to less than 10 of them. That was enough.”
Pickett invites the public to examine the situation for themselves, and he said he hopes that the documentary will inspire conversation about the death penalty.
“We want people to think about the issue — to think about the value of life.”