“Nobody understands what it’s like to watch somebody die,” says Reverend Carroll Pickett, Presbyterian minister and former Death House chaplain for ‘The Walls,’ the Huntsville unit of the Texas prison system. From 1982-97, Pickett ministered to ninety-five men on the final day of their lives—all of them waiting to die by lethal injection—making him the last person to converse with notorious killers like Samuel Hawkins (“The Traveling Rapist”) and Ronald O’Bryan (“The Candy Man”). In his book “Within These Walls” (St. Martin’s Press) Pickett recounts the final hours of many of these criminals, giving the reader an unflinching look at what really transpires on execution day.
Originally a supporter of capital punishment, Pickett now claims that his firsthand experience with a seemingly endless parade of executions led him to come out against the death penalty, a bold reversal in a state infamous for its pro death penalty stance. He now characterizes the death penalty as “useless,” a punishment that not only adversely impacts those involved with meting it out, but causes undue suffering for witnesses and victims’ families. In this Failure Interview, Pickett recalls the executions of several heinous criminals and the circumstances that led him to dub the death penalty a failure.
What led you to taking on the role of Death House chaplain at The Walls?
I had been a minister in Huntsville [Texas] when the director of the prison system—a member of my church—asked me to come to work for a year. I agreed and he assigned me to the Walls unit. [At that point] we weren’t doing executions.
Do you recall how you felt about the death penalty before becoming chaplain?
I was a typical Texan. I was raised in South Texas where the sheriff was the king of the county and he could do no wrong. It was revenge and I thought that’s the way it oughta be. That’s the way most of us in this area were. The Wild West, you might say.
How did you feel when you found out about that first execution back in 1982?
We were all shocked. Nobody in the world had ever done a lethal injection and none of us had ever seen an execution. We were all very, very apprehensive.
How did you deal with that part of your job?
I didn’t look at it as a job but as a ministry. On the unit we had the hospital for the prison, and the third floor—which we called our Death Row—held people dying of cancer, AIDS, and all that. I visited with them and was with them when they died; that was my ministry. When they started the executions I considered that a ministry to a dying person. I had to get away from the idea that lethal injection was anything other than another way of dying.
Take me through the procedure from the time a condemned man is brought to the Death House to the conclusion of the process.
I would be in the Death House with two guards when the prisoner would be escorted in by the men of the Death Row squad. They would take off the shackles and chains and then our guards would do a complete strip search—including a search of all cavities—to make sure he had no weapons. Then he would be placed in a cell and the warden would come in and introduce himself. He would proceed to introduce me and advise the prisoner to talk to me. That would alleviate some of the pressure because he could now deal with somebody who wasn’t dressed in gray [the color of the guards’ uniforms].
First, I would go through his paperwork and see what he wanted to do with his money and his body and go over his list of visitors. After that it was all between him and I. Whatever the condemned man wanted to do, within reason, we would try to do it.
Around six o’clock he would shower and eat his last meal; some of them ate it and some of them didn’t. There’s a book [“Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals From Death Row”] that came out that supposedly lists what they ate, but it’s really not accurate. It’s what they ordered but some of them ate and some of them couldn’t.
At midnight the tie-down team would come in. When we got the official word, the warden would come in and I would say, “It’s time to go.” They would unlock the big, heavy, iron door and then [the prisoner and guards] would walk two or three steps behind me into the Death House. They would strap him down with nine straps and then the warden would come in and ask if anything was too tight or if it hurt anywhere. Sometimes they didn’t like a crease in their shirt or pants or something and the guards would adjust it and then leave.
The warden would step out and there would be a period of about a minute in which he and I would be by ourselves. That would be his last chance to talk. Then the warden would step in with the visitors [family]. After they were all in there would be this big, heavy sound of the door—that’s one thing I will never forget. It really slammed hard. The warden would ask the man if he had any final words. Most of the time we had practiced the speech. I had told him that nine times out of ten, if it wasn’t very long it was probably going to be reported accurately. But it’s difficult for reporters to be in there. We had some faint and some get sick but you don’t stop the process because of that.
When the prisoner would finish with his last words I would signal to the warden or the prisoner would turn his head and close his eyes. The warden would take off his glasses, [the signal to begin the procedure] and the men inside the room where the tubes were coming out would start the sodium thiopentothal. Within seven to twelve seconds he was asleep. Most of the time, that drug was so strong I didn’t feel any pulse after that. But then they would administer two more drugs, which lasted about six minutes. Then a doctor would come in and do a brief examination and announce a time of death. I would stay with him until he was taken out by the funeral home. And I would visit with his family if they wanted to.
What were some of the most common fears of the men waiting to die?
The main fear was, “Is it going to hurt?” The only pain—if you want to call it pain—was the insertion of the needles. But I also had to clear up some misconceptions. For instance, they heard that Texas had a machine and sometimes the machine didn’t work; that was out of a book. Some had heard rumors that if your family didn’t pick up your body they just put it in the creek in the back.
Did the condemned often confess their crimes?
Quite often. One of the procedures we developed is that at ten o’clock I would explain to them the whole procedure. I explained to them the process of the tie-down team, what they would do, and the insertion of the needles. They usually had a lot of questions. Since they couldn’t have any visitors after five o’clock I was about the only one they had to talk to. So from ten o’clock to midnight they really opened up. They would talk about almost anything.
Did anything ever happen in the Death House that really surprised you?
There was one fellow who wanted to sing. It surprised a lot of people, particularly the guards and the warden. He was getting ready to die but his faith was strong enough that all he wanted to do was sing. He sang 15 songs, almost up until midnight.
How did you feel about these men?
It’s difficult for many people to understand but some of them I became pretty good friends with—if you can become a friend in a day. I never saw them until they came in [to the Death House]. And I didn’t read their record. The only way I found out what they had done was if they told me.
Is it difficult for you to talk about this now?
Yes, it’s difficult because I remember each one. 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.
Has the media misled the public about what really goes on during a prisoner’s final few hours?
They don’t mislead them so much [as they get it wrong]. We had one fellow [J.D. Autry]—this was his second time in there—and he was listening to the radio. The radio host claimed he was nervous and scared and pacing all over the place. Well, he heard that and didn’t like it. The public relations officer called the radio station and they corrected it. I think the media writes and says things that aren’t accurate. But they aren’t down there and where they get their information I don’t know.
How did the procedure for handling an execution change between the first one you witnessed and the last? Were there any improvements made through trial and error?
We didn’t know what we were doing when we first started. The first few times we strapped them down at 11 o’clock at night, so they could be ready at midnight. One of them, J.D. Autry, was strapped in just after eleven, and he got stayed just before midnight. He spent almost an hour strapped down in the Death Chamber. That was cruel punishment. I didn’t like that because there was nobody in there but me and him.
What was the most difficult execution you were involved in?
The first one was traumatic because it was the first time I had seen a healthy young man die. Probably the hardest one was a young kid [Carlos De Luna] who didn’t have an education, didn’t have a father, and at the end of the day he developed a father-son type relationship with me and asked me questions that a son would ask a father. I told him that the first drug would put him to sleep and that it would probably take seven to twelve seconds. He just wanted to go real fast, like they all do. I remember it took a little bit longer for the drug to get in there. He opened us his eyes and looked at me like, What’s going on? It took longer than I had told him. Those big brown eyes—I can still see them after 15 years.
In general, how long did it take for you to get over each execution?
I don’t believe I’m over any of them. But I always had to be back at work by eight o’clock the next morning. So I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get over it. One night we did two, one right after the other, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that.
Did prison employees seek you out for counseling?
We used to have group counseling. Some guards quit and some asked for transfers. What the book shows is that there are many people involved in this process that suffer. There are many more victims than just the one. Not that I disregard the people that were murdered, but it creates a whole lot more victims, including me, the warden, the other people who participated, plus the family of the man being executed. The more I ministered to them the more I saw that we were just creating more victims. It gets to everybody. Every one takes a little bit out of you.
How did you make the transition from not taking a stance regarding the death penalty to coming out against it?
I feel like God wanted me to continue working with those people. If I had come out with my feelings before I left . . . you can’t work at the prison without being publicly in favor of it. There have been some guards who have come out against it and they have been asked to leave or got transferred. I felt like as long as I was there I should concentrate on doing whatever little thing I could do to minister to that person who was dying.
How did it feel to finally come out against the death penalty after years of repressing your feelings?
My presbytery—the governing body of the church—had always been very supportive of my ministry, even though the church is against the death penalty. On the day I retired I was able to say, “I’m with all you guys. I’m against it and I’m going to do what I can.” And the people that were opposed to it who were my friends and family, who had never told me they didn’t like what I was doing, now we get along much better.
What troubles you most about the death penalty today?
It’s useless. It’s revenge. Now we see people being taken off Death Row because of DNA and find out that there have been at least 100 people who have been on Death Row who were innocent. The death penalty is a blight on our society—cruel and unusual punishment. We’re committing premeditated murder, to use the legal term.
How does DNA testing affect the outlook for capital punishment?
I don’t necessarily go with the polls but more and more people are changing their mind about being in favor of killing people. Two states have stopped all executions. The worst thing we can do is execute innocent people.
What do you say to death penalty advocates?
We’re creating more victims than we are solving problems. And we’re taking away something you can’t give back.
With all that you know today, is there ever a time when an execution is an appropriate administration of justice?
I don’t think it ever helps society or brings closure. In my opinion and in the opinion of the convicts, life in prison, with no hope of parole, is a much worse punishment. I got locked up accidentally one time in a 5' x 9' cell. I tell you, it’s not fun. Most of these people fear life in prison more than they do the possibility of execution.