A haunting new documentary examines the real-world implications of capital punishment.
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?