Capital punishment is typically regarded as a black-and-white issue: If you’re a supporter it's “right,” if you’re an opponent it’s “wrong.” Considered in the abstract, the death penalty seems a perfectly reasonable punishment for those convicted of committing the most heinous crimes. But charging, condemning and sentencing a man for a capital offense—then putting him on death row and executing him—is a protracted, expensive, imperfect process, one that seems to generate more and more controversy with each passing year. And because most of the developments take place hidden from public view, it’s difficult for casual observers, no matter how well intentioned, to appreciate the complexities of the issue. For better or worse, only those personally connected to the death row inmate and his or her victim(s) are likely to have a solid grasp of the costs, benefits and risks involved.
Enter At the Death House Door (Kartemquin Films), a new documentary by critically-acclaimed filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams), which offers viewers a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the grim business of putting convicted felons to death. The process is seen through the eyes of retired Reverend Carroll Pickett, who, between 1982 and 1995, shepherded 95 inmates to the grave in his role as chaplain at “The Walls,” the Huntsville Unit of the Texas prison system, home to the state’s execution chamber.
While the film focuses on the circumstances surrounding the execution of a single inmate—Carlos De Luna, a young man who may have been innocent of the murder attributed to him—it also revisits an infamous mid-’70s prison siege that resolved itself in simultaneously bizarre and violent fashion. However, it’s most surprising revelation is the unlikely metamorphosis of Pickett from capital punishment advocate to anti-death penalty crusader, a transformation driven largely by his experiences inside The Walls.
Watching this solemn, sobering work, one comes to appreciate how meting out the death penalty takes a toll on virtually every person involved with the practice. Although At the Death House Door’s underlying message remains unspoken, the film begs a question worth asking: Do Americans know enough about capital punishment to make a well-reasoned decision about the issue?
Reverend Carroll Pickett, former Death House chaplain at The Walls
Reverend Pickett never imagined he would spend his career counseling death row inmates. In the summer of 1974, he was minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, a city of 18,000 in the heart of Walker County, 170 miles southeast of Dallas and 70 miles north-northwest of Houston. Until July 24 of that year, Pickett had no direct interaction with any of the area’s prisons, in spite of the fact that the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) was then—and now—the county’s largest employer, with more than twice as many people on the payroll as the next-largest organization (Sam Houston State University), and more than six times as many as the county’s public school system.
But on that fateful midsummer day the young minister received an urgent phone call from the director of the TDC, W.J. (Jim) Estelle, Jr.—a member of Pickett’s church and a good friend—admonishing him to hurry over to The Walls, where three armed convicts (Frederico “Fred” Carrasco, Rudolfo “Rudy” Dominguez and Ignacio “Iggy” Cuevas) had seized control of the third-floor prison library and taken four inmates and 11 civilian employees hostage.
When he arrived at the scene, "[Estelle] said, ‘I want you to minister to the families of the hostages.’” recalls Pickett in At the Death House Door. After a moment’s hesitation, Estelle added, ‘Two of your church members—our church members—are hostages.’” The director was referring to Mrs. Julia (Judy) Standley and Mrs. Elizabeth Yvonne Beseda, best-friends who were among the most upstanding, well-respected members of the congregation.
From the outset, a peaceful resolution to the standoff seemed unlikely. The convicts’ ringleader was Carrasco, former leader of an international narcotics ring who was serving a life sentence for assault with intent to murder a police officer. While authorities didn't know it at the time, the cunning 34-year-old had arranged to have a pair of .357 Magnums and a .38 pistol (not to mention hundreds of rounds of compatible ammunition) smuggled into the prison inside a five-pound ham and assorted packaged meats.
It soon became apparent that the psychopathic drug lord had a death wish, and wouldn’t hesitate to take others down with him. “I’m going out of here, whether it’s alive or dead,” pronounced Carrasco early on, one of many ominous statements he made during the course of the 11-day siege, which has since been documented in the 2004 book “Eleven Days in Hell” (University of North Texas Press) by William T. Harper, former reporter-writer-editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
At first, the drama failed to attract significant media attention, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on the day the crisis began, ordered President Richard M. Nixon to surrender recordings of White House conversations about the Watergate affair. But as the siege dragged on, the national media descended on Huntsville, and Carrasco—looking to generate as much publicity as possible—began granting phone interviews. He even allowed his hostages to speak with the press, their family members and spiritual counselors, allowances that belied the otherwise harsh treatment the captives received.
At one point, Pickett had the opportunity to connect with both Standley and Beseda, and neither of his parishioners was optimistic about their chances of surviving the ordeal. “I talked with Judy and she said, ‘This is what I want for my funeral.’ She knew she wasn't going to make it out…. And then Yvonne got on the phone. And she told me what she wanted for her funeral,” he says in a quiet voice.
Deep down, Pickett knew Standley and Beseda were right. “No siege in America had ever gone on this long. It was just a question of how many were gonna die,” he states matter-of-factly, before noting that Carrasco & Co. had failed to conceive a realistic plan for extricating themselves from the situation. In fact, the escape strategy was formulated by Steven Robertson, one of the inmate hostages, who suggested that the trio leave the library in a Trojan Horse-like contraption, one capable of shielding its occupants from gunfire or any other directed attack.
After Carrasco approved the design of what would become known as the “Trojan Taco,” the inmate and civilian hostages—desperate to end the ordeal by any means possible—cobbled together the peculiar protective device, which in its final incarnation was six feet high, six feet long, three feet wide and an unwieldy 700 pounds. Fully aware that a shield made of rolling chalkboards, wood, pegboard and cardboard would provide precious little protection from bullets, “armor” was added in the form of two- and three-inch-thick law books, which were attached to the frame using yards and yards of book-binding tape.
For added personal security, Carrasco, Dominguez and Cuevas planned to wear bulletproof headgear during their escape attempt—equipment that the trio had demanded, and received, earlier in the siege. Authorities had no misgivings about providing the additional protective gear, as the steel helmets—modified welders helmets fused together back-to-back—weighed a neck-straining 30 pounds, had no ear holes and just a one-inch-high slit from which the wearer could peer out. A medieval knight might have found the helmets perfect for jousting, but they were wholly inappropriate for a life-and-death prison break.
Eleven Days in Hell
For a while, it appeared the saga might drag on for weeks. But on August 2, a powerful thunderstorm rolled in to Huntsville and a “nearby lightning strike knocked out much of the power throughout the prison and short-circuited a relay fuse in the library,” recounts Harper in “Eleven Days in Hell.” Estelle took a calculated risk and delayed restoring the electricity, hoping that the lack of air-conditioning, coupled with the muggy, 100-degree weather, would drive Carrasco to distraction and force him “to make some moves he was not quite prepared to make,” writes Harper.
Estelle’s deliberate inaction had the intended effect, as the oppressive conditions prompted the trio to act, perhaps irrationally. Before long, Carrasco announced that he and his partners-in-crime would exit the library inside the Trojan Taco, each hostage taker accompanied by a female human shield—Carrasco with Beseda, Dominguez with Standley and Cuevas with Novella Pollard, who was the principal of the prison school. Father Joseph O’Brien, the prison chaplain, would also be inside, charged with serving as “brakeman.” Meanwhile, eight additional hostages would be handcuffed to the outside of the Taco; their job would be to maneuver the apparatus down a ramp from the third floor to ground level, then over to the armored getaway van the hostage-takers had requisitioned.
At 9:27 p.m. on August 3—almost 273 hours after the siege began—the motley crew began inching the Taco out of the library. Onlookers couldn’t help but notice that its exterior had been decorated with the Mexican national banner, as well as maps and pictures of Mexican national heroes, seemingly superfluous additions considering its inherently utilitarian function.
Regardless, authorities had no intention of allowing Carrasco and followers to reach the armored car. “The plan was to knock it [the Trojan Taco] over [using 250-psi fire hoses],” remembers Pickett, implying that rescuers hoped to reach the hostages before any could be physically harmed. “When they hit the water, the end finally came,” he concludes.
Four people died during the ensuing gun battle: Standley (who was shot five times in the back); Beseda (who was killed by a bullet to the chest); and inmates Dominguez and Carrasco, the latter dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Cuevas escaped injury—he fainted shortly after the convicts came under attack, a moment of weakness that saved his life—but after three trials he was convicted of capital murder and executed, Pickett at his side, on May 23, 1991.
After the siege ended, Pickett dutifully identified the bodies of Standley and Beseda, then trudged home, where he encountered his daughter Karel. In At the Death House Door she recounts the scene: “I heard him come in and I went to the front [of the house] and he collapsed against the wall—just went down to the floor and sobbed. I had never seen my daddy cry…. I remember getting down on the floor with him and wrapping my arms around him and he just cried,” she recalls, tearing up at the memory.
As one might expect, the siege had a profound effect on Pickett. To begin with, it further solidified his support for the death penalty. “How would you like to see one of your [church] members with five bullet holes in her back? How would you like to identify the body of one of your church members with a three-inch hole in her chest?” he exclaims, as if he had to justify his advocacy.
Additionally, in the wake of the incident, he vowed that he would never return to The Walls again. It was a promise he could not keep, however. Five years later, Estelle asked him to serve a 12-month term as prison chaplain, and he reluctantly agreed, as the never-ending demands of running his own church were threatening—and ultimately did—destroy his (first) marriage.
But on his first day of work, memories of the siege came flooding back: “I didn't breathe walking up that ramp [at the prison's entrance]. I got to the place … where Judy and Yvonne were shot.… In the library there were still bullet holes and you could still see blood stains. I never walked up [those steps] without remembering,” he says. Little did Pickett know, the temporary assignment would eventually become permanent, and his first date with an execution was just around the corner.
Initially, Pickett found working inside The Walls (the prison’s moniker is derived from its high brick walls), somewhat less stressful than guiding the Presbyterian Church. For the first three years of his tenure his most emotionally draining obligation involved ministering to inmates confined to the prison’s third-floor hospital, mostly old men suffering from cancer and other terminal conditions. Then one day in November of 1982, Warden Jack Pursley walked in to a staff meeting, took off his cowboy hat, put it on a table and abruptly announced: “We are going to have an execution.”
At the time, Pickett was still an ardent supporter of the death penalty, at least in theory. “My grandfather was murdered and my father was a bitter man. We were taught, ‘Hang ’em fast, hang ’em high,’” he admits, referring to himself and his siblings. But faced with the prospect of participating in a state-sanctioned killing gave him pause. “Nowhere in my job description did it ever say anything about an execution,” he emphasizes, hardly a surprise, as it had been nearly two decades since anyone had been put to death in Texas—Joseph Johnson being the last, by electrocution, on July 30, 1964.
Furman v. Georgia
In the intervening years, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Furman v. Georgia (1972), a landmark case that held that Georgia’s death penalty statute (which gave the jury unbridled sentencing discretion), created a “substantial risk” that the death penalty would be imposed in an “arbitrary and capricious manner.” The Court went on to conclude that such statutes were “cruel and unusual” and violated the Eighth Amendment, a ruling that effectively voided all existing death penalty schemes. Shortly afterwards, all 45 prisoners on death row in Texas—as well as seven held in the state’s county jails—had their sentences commuted to life in prison.
But the state responded to the Court’s decision by revising the Texas Penal Code, paving the way for executions to resume on January 1, 1974. Naturally, the new laws were challenged, but in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Court held that the revised death penalty statutes in Florida, Georgia and Texas were constitutional, as they provided sentencing guidelines for the judge and jury when deciding whether to impose death. Among other things, the guidelines provided for bifurcated trials; in other words, separate deliberations for the guilt and penalty phases. They also allowed for the introduction of “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors in determining sentences.
The legal wrangling did nothing to help prepare Pickett & Co. for what was to come, however. Without any experience conducting executions, the warden told his “team” they would have to learn through a process of trial and error.
More than 25 years later, Pickett still vividly recalls Pursley addressing him during that fateful staff meeting: “You will be here when the inmate gets here,” he ordered, referring to the fact that death row inmates were housed off-site—at the Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, twelve miles north of Huntsville—and transported to the death house on the morning of execution day. (Today, males on death row are held at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, 45 miles away; females at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, 170 miles distant.) “Your responsibility is to earn his trust and to be honest with him and to counsel with him,” continued the warden. “Above all, I want you to be sure that you can seduce his emotions during the day so that he will not fight at midnight,” a statement that filled Pickett with what he describes as “a great wave of anxiety.”
For one, Pickett feared that the prisoner in question—Charlie Brooks, Jr., who had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Fort Worth auto mechanic David Gregory—might resist his handlers. “I was scared to death,” admits Pickett in At the Death House Door. “I didn't know anybody who would walk eight steps and willingly lie down and die,” indicating that it's a mere eight paces from the condemned man’s holding cell to the death chamber door.
But Pickett was equally concerned about the method of execution. In 1977, Texas adopted lethal injection as means of extinguishing life, and Brooks was to be the first victim of this ostensibly more humane approach. The process, which remains largely the same today as in 1982, is described in detail by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in Baze v. Rees, a 2008 Court decision holding that Kentucky’s lethal injection procedure complies with constitutional requirements:
The first drug, sodium thiopental (also known as Pentathol), is a fast-acting barbituate sedative that induces a deep, comalike unconsciousness when given in the amounts used for lethal injection. The second drug, pancuronium bromide (also known as Pavulon), is a paralytic agent that inhibits all muscular-skeletal movements and, by paralyzing the diaphragm, stops respiration. Potassium chloride, the third drug, interferes with the electrical signals that stimulate the contractions of the heart, inducing cardiac arrest. The proper administration of the first drug ensures that the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by the second and third drugs.
Despite assurances that this so-called “triple drug cocktail” was a dramatic improvement over Texas' prior methods of execution—hanging (1819-1923) and electrocution (1924-64)—Pickett's nerves remained frazzled. In particular, he fretted that the newfangled method would not work as advertised, leading Brooks to suffer through a prolonged life-and-death struggle.
Pickett needn’t have worried. The process went as smoothly as anyone had a right to expect, and after it was over he retreated to his house—the chaplain's quarters, across the street from the prison—pulled out a portable cassette recorder, and dictated his thoughts about everything that had taken place. “After each execution, I made a [cassette] tape on everybody that I walked with to the death chamber,” he says. “I knew that I had to talk to somebody and the only thing in my house at that time was a tape recorder,” noting that he would contemplate eight years worth of executions—alone—before marrying his second wife, Jane, who soon came to appreciate the pain her husband endured.
“I knew by the time he came home he was going to be hungry and very emotional,” she relates in a Death House Door interview, her husband at her side. “His favorite [food] was banana pudding so I tried to make that. That was my ministry—to take care of him and help him get through this. And then I found out how much relief he got from talking to the tape machine…. Those tapes must be his tears,” she concludes.
Reverend Carroll Pickett’s Death House tapes
Today, Pickett stores each of the 95 individual tapes in “unbreakable” purple and black Clik!Case cassette cases—hard plastic containers that hold up to 36 tapes each. One poignant scene from At the Death House Door shows Pickett listening to the 90-minute Brooks cassette, his words coming slowly and haltingly….
The time came, I went to the cell, told Charlie it was time to go, and he walked straight inside. They strapped him down and he didn’t say a word. He was lying there on the table, just waiting…. Warden Pursley said, ‘Do you have any last words?’ He turned and looked at [fiancée] Vanessa Sapp [standing close by] and he said, ‘I love you.’ And he began to chant, in Arabic, from the Koran…. The first injection of lethal medication began flowing to the arms. He opened his mouth—Ahhh … as if he was trying to say, ‘Allah, Oh Akbar,’ which means ‘Allah, the most great.’ His eyes closed and he moved no more. I breathed a sigh of relief. Charlie Brooks died, calmly, peacefully, talking to Allah.
“The first one was traumatic because it was the first time I had seen a healthy young man die,” said Pickett in a 2002 interview with Failure, and according to James, producer-director-editor of At the Death House Door, that anguish is manifest on the recording. “When you listen to the very first one on Charlie Brooks, you hear Pickett trying to deal with his own fear but also his sense that history was being made.”
Gilbert, the film’s producer-director-cinematographer, agrees with this assessment, saying, “[Y]ou can sense that Reverend Pickett was trying to deal with this very difficult assignment…. You can hear the pain in his voice, the need to express himself in this very difficult time. Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, the toll it takes on a man to watch another human being die is evident,” he says.
The Execution Process at The Walls
Unfortunately for Pickett and the rest of the so-called “death team” the process never got any easier; if anything, it became increasingly traumatic over time. Each execution day began at six a.m., when the prisoner was escorted to the death house and strip-searched, a step in the process the reverend always viewed as completely unnecessary. “The strip search in the death house was to look for anything and everything they might use to hurt themselves. [But] nobody is going to kill themselves before they get killed by the state of Texas,” he argues.
Next, the prisoner would be introduced to the warden, who in turn would introduce the individual to Pickett and advise the prisoner to confide in him. “That would alleviate some of the pressure because he [the prisoner] could now deal with somebody who wasn't dressed in gray” [the color of the guards' uniforms], advised Pickett in the aforementioned 2002 interview. “After that it was all between him and I. Whatever the condemned man wanted to do, within reason, we would try to do it,” he continues.
Not surprisingly, the most trying portion of execution day centered on the arrival and subsequent departure of visitors, all of whom had to be pre-approved by the warden. As Pickett puts it in At the Death House Door: “The hardest time was when they saw their family [members] for the last time. Many of the inmates almost collapsed, knowing that they would never see them again,” he says.
With visitors departed, six p.m. would be the next important benchmark—the appointed time for the inmate to shower, put on clean clothes and eat his last meal, assuming he was composed enough to eat, of course. According to “Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era” (Plume)—a book that contains mug shots, personal data, last meal requests and last statements for the first 391 prisoners executed by the state since 1982—some prisoners refuse their last meal, while others are apparently hell-bent on gorging themselves. Consider the supersize order placed by Mauriceo M. Brown, who was executed on July 19, 2006, having been sentenced to death for attempted robbery and murder:
Fifteen enchiladas, heavy with cheese and onions, onion rings or fries, eight pieces of fried chicken, eight pieces of barbecue chicken, eight whole peppers, ten hard-shell tacos with plenty of meat, cheese, onions and sauce, four double-meat, double-cheese, double-bacon burgers, T-bone steak with A1 sauce, and a pan of peach cobbler.
With their last meal behind them and their execution now just hours away, Pickett would bluntly describe to the men how their last few minutes would unfold. “I explained to them the process of the 'tie-down team' … and the insertion of the needles,” he told Failure in 2002. “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. From ten ’o clock to midnight they really opened up,” he continues, implying that if a confession was forthcoming it would usually be offered in this time frame.
Of course, as midnight approached the tension inside the death house would rise. “When we got the official word, the warden would come in and I would say, ‘It's time to go.’ It's hard to tell anybody—even the meanest person—that's it's time to go,” stresses Pickett, who would then lead the condemned into the death chamber, a severe-looking room with fluorescent lighting and brick walls painted the color of mint-green hospital scrubs.
At that point, the “tie-down team” would step in and take the lead. Former corrections official Fred Allen, now a shipping broker in Huntsville, was part of this team a whopping 120 times. To put that in perspective, Allen has participated in more than 10 percent of the 1,100-plus executions that have taken place in the entire country since 1976.
Like Pickett, Allen initially considered himself a very strong supporter of the death penalty. “The individual did the crime, the courts issued the punishment [and] I was back there to carry out the final phase of it,” he says in his measured east Texas drawl. But Allen had a change of heart after witnessing his 120th execution—that of Karla Faye Tucker, who on February 3, 1998, became the first woman to be put to death in Texas in 135 years.
Tucker's execution was extremely controversial, in part because many believed she had “found God” and changed her life. Others felt that her religious awakening didn't excuse the fact that she wielded a pickax in the murder of two individuals. Allen sided with those who advocated a life sentence. “That lady … she knew what she did was wrong, but she was saved. I seen [sic] it in that person. My strong belief is that [the State did it] just to prove a point that they could do a female. They didn't have to do her,” he remarks during a Death House Door interview, his voice choked with emotion.
Allen recalls going home immediately after Tucker was pronounced dead [at 6:45 p.m.; the execution day schedule was compressed down to two-plus hours in 1995] and “when the [evening] news came on it brought her back. And all the other inmates—it brought them back,” he utters before falling silent, unable to articulate anything further.
Allen suffered a nervous breakdown in the wake of Tucker's execution and never again performed tie-down team duty. Pickett isn't surprised his former co-worker succumbed to the stress, as virtually everyone associated with the death team struggled to cope. “We used to have group counseling. Some guards quit and some asked for transfers,” he advises, before letting it slip that guards less composed than Allen were known to become violently ill inside the death house. Even the warden was known to take a “sick day” in the wake of an execution.
“Fred represents the voice of all the workers in the prison system that have been damaged emotionally by having to be in the death house,” explains Gilbert, who notes that it was Allen's responsibility to get the inmate on the gurney, strap him (or her) down using nine heavy straps, and then remove the lifeless body after-the-fact. Although the individual would be in a supine position, the positioning of the arms—outstretched—strongly suggested crucifixion, a feeling not lost on the condemned. According to Pickett, the men often exclaimed: “This is what it must be like to be crucified”—or words to that effect.
Finally, at the last stage, a medically trained professional would insert an intravenous catheter into the condemned's arms. With a saline solution flowing, the warden would invite the person to make a last statement, in which he or she would commonly beg forgiveness and express remorse. Less often, the prisoner would profess innocence, deliver a profanity-laced tirade or simply decline to make a statement. As soon as the individual uttered his last words, the warden would take off his glasses, the signal to start the sodium thiopental.
The Carlos De Luna case
For Pickett, two cases among the 95 stand out. One involved a doe-eyed twenty-something named Carlos De Luna, who was convicted of fatally stabbing Wanda Lopez, a 24-year-old single mother who worked as a cashier at a Sigmor gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas. On Friday February 2, 1983, a man entered the station's convenience store and stabbed Lopez to death, ostensibly in the act of robbery. Lopez dialed 911 before the attack commenced, and while the 911 (audio) tape offered clues, the station lacked security cameras, leaving the identity of the killer very much in doubt. Nevertheless, the police were certain they had their man when, 40 minutes later, they discovered De Luna hiding under a truck—shirtless and shoeless—within several hundred yards of the crime scene.
De Luna not only insisted he was innocent (he claimed he ran and hid because he feared a parole violation), he advised police he knew who committed the crime—an acquaintance named Carlos Hernandez. The officers dismissed De Luna's explanation and drove him to the scene, where they performed a highly suggestive “show-up” (as opposed to a “lineup”), presenting him—and him alone—to a pair of eyewitnesses. Both identified De Luna as Lopez's attacker, perhaps influenced by the fact that he was already handcuffed and in police custody.
Fast forward to 2006, when investigative reporters Steve Mills and Maurice (Maury) Possley published a three-part series in the Chicago Tribune suggesting that De Luna's case might be an example of mistaken identity. In At the Death House Door (funded in part by the Tribune), they make a compelling argument that De Luna was indeed innocent.
First and foremost, the reporters note that there was no physical evidence tying De Luna to the crime scene. “Not a speck of blood was found on his pants, his shoes [or] the white shirt that was said to be his,” begins Possley. Comparing photographs side-by-side, Possley demonstrates that De Luna and Hernandez bore an uncanny resemblance and could easily be mistaken for one another, especially by an eyewitness whose senses had been compromised by the stress of observing a violent attack.
The pair also contend that the knife found at the crime scene was identical to the one Hernandez carried, and that Hernandez was known around Corpus Christi for his exceedingly bad temper and propensity for violence: “The Tribune investigation show[ed] that the circumstances of Lopez's murder eerily echo the details of Hernandez's lengthy rap sheet—gas station robberies, knife attacks and several assaults on women,” assert the reporters, who go on to highlight that after De Luna was convicted, Hernandez boasted that he murdered Lopez and that his “stupid tacayo” (namesake) had taken the blame.
Details highlighted at trial also raise questions. For one, “the first descriptions broadcast over the police radio mentioned a Hispanic male in a gray sweatshirt or flannel shirt, not the white dress shirt police said De Luna was wearing,” write Mills and Possley in the first article of their series. The reporters also indicate that “De Luna told his lawyers that [Hernandez] went to the station to buy a pack of cigarettes, which sold for 85 cents …” the exact amount Lopez is heard quoting a customer on the 911 recording just before she is stabbed.
Finally, guilt and innocence aside, Mills and Possley observe that it isn't clear whether any money was taken from the gas station, and without “robbery” there wouldn't be the requisite aggravating circumstance to elevate the crime to a capital offense. In other words, even if guilty De Luna may not have deserved the death sentence he received.
Carlos De Luna an innocent man?
Interviewed for the documentary, De Luna's sister, Rose Rhoton, now married and living in Houston, emphasizes that her brother had a difficult childhood and that their upbringing was anything but ideal. Among other things, Rose and Carlos never met their father (they were raised by their alcoholic stepfather), and spent their youth bouncing around the “real bad side” of Corpus Christi because their mother could rarely afford to pay rent.
Carlos' downward spiral began when he dropped out of school at age 13, around the time “he started getting into trouble and started sniffing paint,” allows Rhoton. “Of course, he didn't have the money to buy it so he would break into houses and steal,” she admits, glossing over the fact that Carlos soon compiled a long, diverse rap sheet, one that included everything from drunkenness and disorderly conduct to auto theft and attempted aggravated rape. Still, Rhoton insists that for all his behavioral issues, Carlos would never have been capable of murder. “He wasn't a confrontation person; he was afraid of the dark,” she explains.
Today, both Rhoton and Pickett—not to mention police detectives, attorneys, reporters and others familiar with Carlos' case—are haunted by the notion that De Luna may well have been innocent. Rhoton, for one, claims the questions raised by Mills and Possley make her “angry”—“I'm angry the system let me down,” she cries in At the Death House Door—and that if she knew then what she knows now she “would have fought harder for Carlos,” pushing the attorneys she hired to advocate for him that much more vigorously. “March fifteenth [his birthday] every year, I think about Carlos. It's a real painful situation to go through every year—to think about him,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Rose is, in many ways, the voice of the unempowered in our legal system,” elaborates Gilbert. “She explains the circumstances around Carlos' death and how she felt the pain of not being able to navigate the system to help her brother. Like so many other relatives of the wrongfully convicted, she suffers from the despair that comes with believing Carlos was guilty.”
Karen Boudrie remembers Carlos De Luna
Similarly, Karen Boudrie—a reporter who covered De Luna's case for CBS-TV's Newswatch 10 early in her broadcasting career—says she also feels guilty about not doing more for Carlos. Having interviewed De Luna many times over a period of years she watched him mature into an eloquent, God-fearing young man, one who earned his GED and took college classes during his time in prison.
Now, almost 20 years later, she remains overwhelmed by the fact that she was the last person from the outside world he spoke to—the last person he phoned—before his death. In the film she recollects him saying: “It's gonna happen. I've already said goodbye to my family—they're gone. You're my last phone call….
“I was just floored. What do you say to someone who is going to die in an hour?” she wonders aloud, recalling the moment.
Ultimately Boudrie managed to compose herself and asked: “Carlos, you don't have any time left. Is there anything you want to confess? He said, ‘No, I didn't do what they said I did. They are killing an innocent man.’ I remember hanging up the phone and sitting there and thinking that I didn't do enough. I had an opportunity but I just believed him too late,” she admits.
“As a young reporter covering her first murder case [Boudrie] was naïve to think that the government would do its absolute best to bring the right man to justice,” assesses Gilbert, “and she remains guilt-ridden that she did not use her journalistic abilities to try and clear him. In some ways, Karen might be the voice of all of us. We want to believe that the system works, and when it fails it is devastating.”
Carlos De Luna’s execution
As for Pickett, De Luna’s execution—33 of 95—is the one that bothers him above all others, and not just because he also came to believe that Carlos was innocent. One thing that sticks in his mind is that De Luna, “who looked a lot younger than his 27 years,” was “very, very nervous” on execution day, and in particular concerned that his death would be excruciatingly painful. Pickett assured him it would be quick and painless, yet on that particular occasion the procedure didn't go as planned. In At the Death House Door we see Pickett listening intently to his 60-minute De Luna cassette, distress clearly evident in his voice:
He was squeezing very tight as they inserted the needle. The sodium thiopental began to flow. After about 10 seconds he raised up his head and looked at me with his big brown eyes. The warden looked at me and I looked at him. Something was not going right. After about 10 seconds more he raised up his head again and looked square in my face and my eyes. Nothing was happening. I had told him—I had promised him it wouldn't hurt, [that] it wouldn't take long. He might have been thinking,‘You lied to me.’ This bothers me and probably will forever and ever….
Carlos’ reaction to the drug cocktail was contrary to Pickett’s experience; typically, the individual would be unconscious in approximately seven seconds, and according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site, the entire process is normally completed in seven minutes. In contrast, De Luna remained conscious for more than 20 seconds and was not pronounced dead until 11 minutes had passed. In 2002, Pickett told Failure: “He just wanted to go real fast, like they all do,” said Pickett. [But] it took longer than I had told him. Those big brown eyes—I can still see them after 15 years.”
In At the Death House Door, Pickett reveals that he had to seek therapy following De Luna’s execution because he felt like he had “failed the kid.” Pickett didn’t meet Carlos until the young man had only 18 hours to live, yet the bond they formed is evident during one scene in which Pickett reveals a chilling exchange that took place between them: “When I gave him the peaches and ice cream he said, ‘Thank you daddy…. I never had a daddy. You were like my daddy should have been. Can I call you daddy when I die?’ And I told him, that’s okay,” says Pickett, who credits his therapist with making him realize that statements like these demonstrated how much the condemned men needed him. He was their only friend during their last hours in this world.
Iggy Cuevas’ execution
One man Pickett was unable to bond with inside the death house was 16-year death row veteran Iggy Cuevas, who, after three trials, had been convicted of murdering Judy Standley and sentenced to death—“murder during prison escape” being a capital offense in Texas. Having had a personal relationship with the killer’s victim, Pickett found it especially difficult to perform his duties and serve as a source of comfort for Cuevas.
“How in the world could a man be a minister to a woman like Judy Standley . . . and then 17 years later, minister to the man who was convicted of killing her? I wanted out of that one,” he admits in At the Death House Door. But corrections officials wouldn’t let him off the hook. “You have to go on,” ordered the warden. “Just be sure you never let Cuevas know that you were the minister of Judy and Yvonne,” he recalls being told.
Conflicted, Pickett agreed to perform his duties and was initially placated when Cuevas maintained that he had confessed his sins each and every day since August 3, 1974. But on his deathbed, his last words to be distributed for public consumption, Cuevas professed his innocence, whispering in Spanish, “I am innocent.” Then he turned his face away from the witnesses and said, “Okay, warden, roll ’em.”
Cuevas’ last-minute about-face infuriated Pickett and eroded his sympathy for the condemned man’s plight: “I can see Cuevas turning his head and I wanted to go bash it in for lying,” he admits. “That sounds cruel. That’s not Christian. Sorry. I take that back. I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted him to die,” he says, backtracking.
Although Standley’s killer did not publicly express remorse, Picket still held out hope that his demise would bring relief to her family. Two hours later, at 2:30 a.m., an exhausted Pickett met with Standley’s two children, who, much to his surprise, indicated that Cuevas’ execution gave them no satisfaction. “[One] 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.’”
Reverend Carroll Pickett now a death penalty opponent
Today, Pickett is occasionally accused of being disingenuous about his anti-death penalty stance, his critics wondering: How could he be a part of 95 executions if he believed the death penalty was wrong?
His answer to that question is simple. “I feel like God wanted me to continue working with these people. They need to be treated like human beings,” he elaborates, a stance that less forgiving folks might find difficult to comprehend, but one that reflects his deep sense of compassion. And while he admits there were moments—especially in the immediate aftermath of the De Luna execution—that he considered abandoning his death house obligations, he says it never quite seemed like the right thing to do. “To me that would have been quitting a ministry. I'm not a quitter,” he says emphatically.
Certainly, At the Death House Door illustrates that it was in everyone’s best interest—including his own—for Pickett to refrain from expressing his feelings about the death penalty for as long as he was on the job. “If I was ‘for’ capital punishment the inmates would have never talked to me,” he begins, giving voice to an important practical consideration. “If I said I was against it I’d have been fired. So I kept my mouth shut.”
Yet he also refrained from discussing the death penalty and his death house experiences with his four children, aiming to shield them from the emotional trauma. Charlotte Hirschfelder, one of his three daughters, reports that “he really never talked about his feelings about it.” His son Steven, who once worked as a sociologist in the Texas prison system, believes he has an explanation for his father’s silence: “It was something he felt—as a father, you’re not supposed to share your pain with your children.”
As a result, Pickett’s family knew precious little about his work, and for the longest time, had no idea how he felt about the death penalty. Hirschfelder says she found it odd that her father never voiced an opinion about the issue. “I just always assumed he was for it, because he had this job. Why would you do that if you didn’t support it?”
But despite being in the dark about the details, all four children could sense that their father was under a tremendous amount of stress. “I didn’t like him working at the prison,” begins daughter Karel Henry. “I didn’t like the things that were happening to him after the death penalty started. He looked absolutely devastated and it just got worse with every one of them. But we knew he was making a difference and we just prayed that he would be fine. [We prayed] a lot.”
After 13 years of silence, Pickett felt a great sense of relief when he was finally able to make others aware of his feelings about capital punishment. “My presbytery has always been very supportive of my ministry, even though the [Presbyterian] Church is against the death penalty. On the day I retired I was able to say, ‘I’m with you guys. I’m against it and I’m going to do what I can.’ And the people who 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,” he offers.
While Pickett remains at peace with his decision, Huntsville isn’t the easiest place for a death penalty opponent to call home. Residents are almost obligated to support capital punishment, owing to the area’s economic reliance on the corrections industry, and to a lesser extent, executions. “When they reinstated the death penalty [in 1982] all the people in Huntsville were thrilled,” points out Henry. “We were getting attention. We made a lot of money in Huntsville when we had executions,” she continues, a hint of enthusiasm lingering in her voice.
For better or worse, local businesses have never been shy about portraying Huntsville as death penalty capital of the United States. “There’s a hamburger place right across from the prison [Mr. Hamburger: Home of the Killer Burger] and for years they’ve had a ‘killer burger’ and special murder meals,” confirms a slightly embarrassed Pickett. He also notes that Huntsville is home to the Texas Prison Museum, where the most popular—not to mention most controversial—attraction is “Old Sparky,” the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed over the course of four decades. “When you tell people you're from Huntsville they say, ‘Oh, that’s where they kill everybody’,” he laments.
But the public pressure being what it is, Pickett’s willingness to take a stand speaks to his level of passion and commitment to the issue. Weighing in on the ‘Is Pickett genuine?’ controversy, James regards the reverend as doubly convincing because he was so intimately involved with the process for so long. “For someone who was so much a part of the prison system to speak so forcefully against capital punishment—that is indeed a source of his high credibility,” he argues.
Meanwhile, Pickett also has a ready answer for critics who claim he would flip-flop and campaign on behalf of the death penalty if a capital offense was committed against one of his family members. During At the Death House Door, Ellis asks her dad point-blank what punishment he would want for the offender if she were brutally raped and murdered? Without hesitation he responds: “Give them life without parole and put them in solitary [confinement] for the rest of their lives,” he says firmly, a fate that strikes Ellis as a punishment worse than death. “That's right,” he confirms. “They would rather be executed than have life without parole because they are in a cell 23 hours a day and have no hope.”
These days, Pickett spends much of his time doing speaking engagements and volunteering on behalf of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Convincing the public that the death penalty is a wrongheaded approach would appear to be an uphill battle, as surveys consistently show strong support for it in cases where an individual has been convicted of murder. For instance, a Pew survey from August 2007 found that 62 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, with 32 percent opposed and just six percent “unsure.”
Some of that support may be based on the misguided assumption that it is less expensive to execute a prisoner than it is to imprison him for life. According to the TDC Web site, the cost of the drugs used to carry out an execution is a mere $86.08, which sounds like a bargain compared to the estimated cost of life imprisonment—a hefty half-million dollars. Yet, the average stay on death row in Texas exceeds ten years, and the cost [to the State] of mounting a defense and appealing convictions can be exorbitant. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the estimated cost of a single death penalty case (from arrest to execution) ranges from $1 to $3 million. The Dallas Morning News pegs the average cost of a death penalty case in Texas at $2.3 million.
On the other hand, there are signs that support for the death penalty may be waning, as surveys also indicate that the public’s tolerance for capital punishment has diminished since the mid-1990s. Some of the decline may be attributed to concerns about the number of innocent men and women who have received death sentences. Since 2000, an average of five prisoners have been taken off death row each year (up from 3.1 per year from 1973-99) thanks to evidence of innocence, giving the oft-intoned death-is-irreversible argument that much more weight. As Hirschfelder reminds in At the Death House Door: “You do death and you can't correct the mistake.”
Recent Supreme Court Death Penalty cases
While capital punishment is always a hot-button issue, recent court rulings have consistently kept the death penalty in the spotlight. For instance, in June of 2008 the Supreme Court rendered judgment in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which asked the justices to decide whether the Constitution prohibits the death penalty for the rape of a child. The Court held that such punishment is unconstitutional, basing its decision, in part, on the argument that because child rape is a capital offense in only six states, and not under federal law, the punishment does not meet the “evolving standards of decency” by which the Court judges capital punishment. The already-controversial ruling became even more remarkable when, a week later, the U.S. Justice Department acknowledged that government lawyers should have been aware that child rape is a capital offense in the military, and should have informed the Court of that fact while the justices were considering the evidence, a distinction that conceivably could have prompted the opposite result.
Meanwhile, the death penalty has been also been making headlines at the state level. In February 2008, Nebraska's highest court created considerable uncertainty about the future of the death penalty in that state when it held that electrocution—Nebraska’s sole means of execution—constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The fate of ten death row inmates is now in the balance—a group that includes John Lotter, who had been sentenced to death for a grisly triple murder that inspired the 1999 movie Boys Don't Cry, starring Hilary Swank as victim Teena Brandon.
And, on July 1, 2008, Florida executed Mark Dean Schwab (convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing an 11-year-old boy) using a new lethal injection procedure, one that requires the condemned to be rendered unconscious by sodium thiopental before the pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride is administered. The change was instituted after a botched December 2006 execution, in which the condemned, Angel Diaz, suffered severe burns when the executioner injected the chemicals into his muscle tissue, as opposed to his veins. Several times, Diaz was seen grimacing and at one point asked, “What’s going on?” before finally being pronounced dead 34 minutes after the procedure was initiated.
But while “cruel and unusual punishment” is a front-burner controversy in several states, Texas’ approach to capital punishment seems colder and more indifferent than ever before. Instead of spending 18 hours with an inmate, like Pickett and other prison personnel used to do, “Now they bring ’em in at four [p.m.] and two hours later it’s time to kill ’em,” he marvels, referring to the abbreviated execution day schedule. “There would be no way in the world any chaplain could be effective [under those circumstances]. The man wouldn’t have time to get ready to die,” he insists.
Yet they do die just the same. On August 22, 2007, Johnny Ray Conner became the 400th inmate executed by lethal injection in Texas. The last scene in At the Death House Door depicts prison guards taking Conner’s personal effects and leaving them out at the curb, much the same way as one leaves trash at the end of one’s driveway. Conner had been dead just minutes when this took place—the state’s unspoken way of conveying the message that the prisoner couldn't be gone soon enough.
Or maybe it’s just that there's a long list of inmates that need to be disposed of. After executing its 405th prisoner on September 25, 2007, Texas declared a moratorium while it awaited the Supreme Court’s decision in Baze. But on June 11, 2008, it was business as usual when the state took the life of Karl Chamberlain, a 37-year-old who was convicted of assaulting and fatally shooting a neighbor after going to her apartment under the pretense of borrowing sugar.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that after 410 executions [December 1982-July 2008], there’s still no shortage of men getting ready to die; six scheduled for August 2008, three for September, one for October, and many others in the pipeline. In each case, the inmate will be dispatched in a manner of hours, forgotten by society before the end of the next news cycle. But as At the Death House Door makes clear, family members, victims’ families and others within the convict’s sphere of influence will continue to shoulder an emotional burden for the rest of their lives.
Even today, 13 years removed from his last execution, Pickett must periodically revisit the advice of his therapist, who once warned: “If you get emotionally involved with all these people … you are going to lose your life, you are going to lose your health [and] you are going to lose your job.” With the help of counseling he has now come to accept that he will never get over the cumulative effect of his past work, and that De Luna’s execution in particular will stay with him until the day he dies. “You will live with … those big ’ol eyes looking at you at the end,” his therapist once told him.
For his part, former corrections officer Allen has developed an entirely different coping mechanism, one that hinges on his ability to block out the past. On the wall of his office hangs a sheet of paper with the following message: “The brightest future will always be based on a forgotten past. You can’t go forward in life until you let go of your past failures and heartaches.”
The irony is that while Allen is hoping to forget, many of the inmates he helped execute desperately want to be remembered. Reviewing “Texas Death Row” it's inescapable how many men express the hope that their passing will serve as a catalyst to do away with capital punishment. “If my death serves this purpose, then maybe it will be worthwhile,” said Jesse Dewayne Jacobs in his last statement, just seconds before he was executed for the abduction and shooting death of the ex-wife of his sister’s boyfriend.
But most of the men are understandably resigned to the fact that their death will have no impact whatsoever. On November 3, 2005, Melvin Wayne White, was put to death for kidnapping, assaulting and murdering a nine-year-old girl. His very last words no doubt reflected—and continue to reflect—the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of Texans: “All right, Warden. Let’s give them what they want.”
“Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain” by Reverend Carroll Pickett with Carlton Stowers (St. Martin’s Press)
“Eleven Days in Hell: The 1974 Carrasco Prison Siege in Huntsville, Texas” by William T. Harper (University of North Texas Press)
“Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era” edited by Bill Crawford (Plume)