By Bryan Newbury
April 28, 2008
A person’s views on the death penalty don’t just change. They evolve. When someone takes the time to investigate the process and the punishment, the only intelligent conclusion he can arrive at is that capital punishment is a barbaric miscarriage of justice. This seems to be the case At the Death House Door puts forward, and it would be difficult to argue to the contrary.
Most who maintain a fervently anti-death penalty stance have a Road to Damascus moment in which the act of a state killing in order to discourage killing unravels before them. For some, it was the case of Roger Keith Coleman of Grundy, Virginia. In 1992, Coleman became a cause célébre. All the pieces seemed to fall into place. Here was a coal miner who seemed to have had to complete a decathlonesque performance en route to the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Key evidence seemed to point to at least a shadow of a doubt. Governor Wilder was up for reelection, and seemed to be hearing none of the case.
The same year saw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Though the evidence of his guilt wasn’t in question, the issue of trying, convicting and executing a man who was essentially retarded shone a light on the craven political advantage in vengeance and blood lust. Governor Bill Clinton took the time to return to Arkansas, mid-campaign, in order to make sure the execution transpired.
The Damascus moment isn’t perfect. Subsequent DNA evidence suggests that Coleman was guilty after all. Rector wasn’t born mentally retarded. He was unfit as the result of a suicide attempt after the crime, which effectively lobotomized him. Realizing this after the fact doesn’t put the genie back in the lamp. After the process of investigation begins, the convert retains some of that doubt in the system. “This may be the case in this instance,” he thinks, “but, how many cases like this are out there?”
In Texas, there are a lot, and no Saul could have a more palpable case than Reverend Carroll Pickett of Huntsville.
At the Death House Door examines the life and career path of Pickett, a Presbyterian minister who leaves his church to become a prison chaplain. Like everything else in Pickett’s story, this decision is rife with complexities. His church was flourishing and his stature in the community had seen a meteoric rise. This came at the expense of his marriage, which he sought to save by keeping a lower profile as prison chaplain. That these were the grounds that saw two of his congregation slain in a prison hostage standoff didn’t make the decision any easier. In fact, five years prior to his accepting the prison chaplain job he’d vowed to never set foot in the prison again.
History had other ideas. Not only did he take the job… shortly after assuming the post, the state of Texas reinstituted executions. Pickett was soon named “death house chaplain,” ministering to the condemned on the day their sentence would be carried out. So much for the low profile.
The film displays a grace with counterpoints and storylines that is rare. Pickett’s personal tale is engrossing, and though it plays heavily into the death penalty debate, it is one worthy of a feature length film in itself. Pickett’s life plays out in odd and harmonious ways. The discordant elements that go with his vocation are brought to light – most eloquently in a family dinner and interviews with his current spouse – while his creativity in coping with unpleasant realities continually amazes. There is hardly a wasted second in the 90 plus minutes of At the Death House Door. Indeed, each side story is worthy of an in-depth piece. From the formation of a prison choir, which takes root in all manner of positive ways, to the ubiquitous gray area of the guilty and the innocent, to his collection of cassette tapes, the subject and the work enlighten, enrage and astonish.
A word about the tapes. When James and Gilbert first saw and heard Pickett’s collection, they must’ve danced inside. It is hard to comprehend a testament more valuable than Pickett narrating his experiences after each execution. From Charlie Brooks (the first lethal injection in the state of Texas) in 1982 to the final condemned man he’d ministered to in 1995, these “tears,” as a family member called them, referring to his stern upbringing and inability to emote, serve as an invaluable record of Huntsville in particular and capital punishment in general.
Two executions play key roles, those of Ignacio Cuevas and Carlos De Luna. These men relate the Janus-faced evils of the death penalty: 1. That killing the guilty doesn’t provide closure to the families of the victims; 2. If you execute an innocent man, there’s no chance to correct the mistake.
It is hard to imagine Pickett wanting to see anyone executed more than Cuevas. Here was the man who’d murdered two of his parishioners during the siege of 1974. On the other hand, it must have been the longest day Pickett had spent in the Walls Unit. Cuevas eventually offers a confession and subsequent retraction, which couldn’t have helped Pickett’s outlook. Even with a seeming lack of contrition, and an iron-clad case against Cuevas for doing the crime, the punishment rings hollow. As a daughter of one of the victims is quoted as saying, “This does not bring closure… there is nothing that happened in that building that could bring her back. [She’s] dead and he’s dead, and that’s just two dead people.”
In some ways, this is the easier case against the death penalty. Its merits and malfunctions exist in ether when related to the possibly or even probably innocent. When an assertion of innocence is stated, there will always be an argument that the inmate was found guilty in trial and on appeal. Even with DNA evidence, there will be a case to be made that the convicted man or, in rare instances, woman, was simply good at covering up the tracks. That the legal system will go out of its way to presume guilt is bad enough… that the punishment manifests itself as a hollow and crude tool of vengeance rather than justice puts the issue in full perspective.
De Luna is the classic case of justice miscarried. He was convicted of killing a gas station clerk in Corpus Christi in 1983. Circumstances were unkind to Carlos De Luna, who was a small-time criminal. The police found him under a truck. He’d been hiding, he said, because he was violating parole. Drinking. Despite the fact that he had no blood on him (the murder was committed with a knife, and the scene was that of a slaughterhouse killing floor) witnesses identified him as the man the police were after. That he bore a striking resemblance to Carlos Hernandez, whose knife, incidentally, was the one found at the scene, didn’t help his case. The “line-up” was De Luna alone, in a police car, minutes after the murder. De Luna repeatedly offered up Carlos Hernandez as the killer. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as is so often the case with police, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. After all, why bother to trade in the brown man you’ve convicted in order to repeat the messy process?
Despite media attention and the mounting evidence in support of his innocence, De Luna was executed on 7 December 1989. Of course, his execution was botched, causing a bit of extra pain on the way out.
De Luna’s case changed Pickett, who remains staunchly conservative. That this is no Helen Prejean adds more heft still. He eventually leaves the Walls and takes up with Rose Rhoton, De Luna’s sister, in an effort to abolish the death penalty. As with so much of At the Death House Door, Rhoton could doubtless be a compelling feature subject in her own right. Just as executing Cuevas didn’t bring back Pickett’s parishioners, abolishing the death penalty won’t right what happened to her brother. Still, one hopes Pickett and Rhoton manage to enlighten people into at least considering the abolition of this uncivilized practice.
Towards the end of the film, Pickett describes the changes made in execution day itinerary following his departure. Where Pickett spent the entire day with the condemned in preparation and ministering, “now they bring him in at 4:00 PM and two hours later, it’s time to kill him.” The scene that follows this revelation informs us of just how indifferent we have become, even in relationship to the Reagan years.
Recommending viewing of At the Death House Door is one of the easiest calls a reviewer can make. James and Gilbert have managed to succeed on all fronts. The storytelling is superb, the pacing perfect, the people compelling and the case made. The sole difficulty comes in attempting to find a chink in the armor. It simply isn’t there. When all is said and done, At the Death House Door is likely the best documentary release of 2008, and in all probability among the top 10 of the decade. They’ve managed to do more than splendidly document the story of Carrol J. Pickett, Carlos De Luna, Ignacio Cuevas and the overall issue they’ve chosen to tackle. This film is a work of art.
Directed & Produced by Steve James & Peter Gilbert
Executive Produced by Gordon Quinn
2008, 95 minutes
Premiers on IFC TV May 29 at 9 pm ET/PT