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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

Kartemquin Films

2008, 95 minutes

Premiers on IFC TV May 29 at 9 pm ET/PT

Rick on May 14th, 2008 at 11:07 am 

I watched this documentary at but it seems to be removed now for some reason

Dudley Sharp on May 22nd, 2008 at 1:47 pm 

Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the film “At the Death House Door”, a film 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 and the Reverend is an anti death penalty activist.

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

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

Reply: The “great majority” were 47 white (49%) with 32 black (34%), and 16 Hispanic (17%).

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. 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 innocent murder victims and those that weren’t old enough for school?

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

Reply: In this well known case. John Wayne Hearn, the hitman, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sandra Black.

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. 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: 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. It means absolutely nothing.

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 Pickett’s poor judgement or something else.

And there is this major problem.

In 1999, after Rev. Pickett had left his death row ministry, he was asked, “Do you think there have been some you have watched die who were strictly innocent?”

His reply: “I never felt that.” (3)

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: That may be Rev. Pickett’s opinion, but 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. His assertion is totally contradicted by the facts.

Facts: What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death 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. 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?

Pickett: stated that “doctors can’t (check the veins of inmates pending execution), it’s against the law.” (1)

Reply: Ridiculous.

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): “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. Only for pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) are there substantial indications that the agent may also be given intramuscularly in a dosage of 40 mg.

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

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 48 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. The murder is wrong and there are various sanctions for committing that wrong, including execution.

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?

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

Henry Kong on January 6th, 2009 at 6:26 pm 

I just saw this pathetic film and just had to see if there was a sane person beside myself who saw this.
Thank you Mr Sharp for exposing this propagada film that insults the victims of these degenerate killers.
It is a shame that Pickett and the makers of this film is allowed to cash in. Pickett should burn in hell if he believes what he says and performed the sins he now profess. What a sick world when a one sided film like this can be aired as reality.

Aaron Buchanan on March 11th, 2009 at 10:07 am 

I believe that the death penalty should be abolished. It’s a cruel way to punish anyone. Life in prison is punishment enough without adding murder into the bargain!

Jeffrey on April 3rd, 2009 at 4:46 am 

I remember watching this at but it seems removed now for some reason.

kathiez on August 23rd, 2009 at 7:06 am 

Great documentary. The facts that Mr. Pickett stated are true of every prison in America right now.

VIMAX on February 2nd, 2016 at 11:07 am 

Great documentary. The facts that Mr. Pickett stated are true of every prison in America right now.

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vimax on October 12th, 2016 at 6:30 am 

thanks you information I like good best of the best

Vimax on December 13th, 2016 at 6:19 am 

Great documentary. The facts that Mr. Pickett stated are true of every prison in America right now. thanks you information I like good best of the best

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