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Texas Preacher Pushes the Gospel of Mercy for Death Row Inmates

Years of ministering to prisoners on death row turned Rev. Carroll Pickett into a passionate leader to end the death penalty.
 
 
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The great Texas sun is rising on a cool summer morning as the Rev. Carroll Pickett, a minister who once ushered condemned men into the execution chamber and watched them die, speaks of redemption. His Sunday school students, middle-aged and elderly couples from a gated community just north of Houston, contemplate the message of repentance given by the former prison chaplain of Texas' most notorious penitentiary, a prison whose name is synonymous with hard time: Huntsville.

Pickett, a Presbyterian minister, wears a mint-green suit and a tie dotted with gold crosses. Tucked under his arm is a hand-tooled leather case containing a Bible, a gift from the inmates who once sought his counsel and lent their voices to his prison choirs. During the course of his career, this soft-spoken man with a good-ole-boy twang has witnessed prison officials pump poison into the veins of 95 men.

Pickett reads aloud the warning delivered by an angel in the final book of the Bible, Revelation: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot ... So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth."

"In other words, get off the fence," Pickett tells his class. "Every Christian has got to get off the fence."

It took decades -- nearly a lifetime -- but Pickett made that jump himself. After his retirement in 1995, he spoke out against the death penalty. Since then, his unique insider's perspective and "Texas gentleman" manner has made him a potent force within the movement to abolish the death penalty. Few men can claim to have witnessed the first execution by lethal injection in the world, as he did 25 years ago. Even fewer have sat in prayer, listened to the confessions and final requests of men on the last day of their lives, heard their final words and their last gasp.

In Pickett's 2002 book, Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain , he described in poignant detail his personal journey from death penalty supporter to ardent abolitionist. A documentary film about the possibly wrongful execution of Carlos De Luna and Pickett's final moments with him, At the Death House Door , is slated to air on the Independent Film Channel in the spring. Pickett has testified before Texas lawmakers, taken his abolitionist message to Rotary clubs and to big-city and small-town congregations alike. On an issue that imposes absolute and final judgment, he injects nuance.

"I was for [the death penalty] because I saw the injustice," explained Pickett after Sunday school. "I began to change because the system was so bad. I saw 17-year-old killers and the mentally retarded [executed], and the fact that nobody had any education."

In 2002, six years after Pickett's retirement from the Huntsville Prison, the Supreme Court ruled against executing the mentally retarded; in 2005, the Court exempted juvenile offenders from capital punishment. In September, as Texas carried out its 400th execution, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the mixture administered in lethal injections amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment," thus violating the Constitution. The case will be argued in February 2008.

Steve Hall, director of the Stand-Down Texas Project, an anti-death-penalty group, says Pickett's indisputable credibility and authenticity is compelling in a state that leads the nation in executions.

"People understand it's not gloss, it's not some sales job, it's not some distillation, it's not something he has picked up from the AI Web site," he said. "When you hear him, you really get a vision of what he went through and the questions, the doubt and that gradual transformation that changed him, and that now really drives his activity." Pickett grew up in Victoria, Texas, a small town east of San Antonio. "My daddy was a [death penalty] supporter, and his office was next to the jail," Pickett says, over a breakfast of homemade biscuits at an old-fashioned restaurant in Montgomery, birthplace of the "Lone Star" Texas flag. "My father believed that anyone who was arrested was guilty, and I was raised that way."

In Texas, the death penalty, like pickup trucks and high school football, is part of a culture steeped in the lore of frontier justice. Here, attitudes toward the death penalty are rife with emotion, shaped by religious beliefs and deeply personal. On a highway leading to Huntsville, a billboard boasts of the town's treasures: Big Sam (Sam Houston University); Ol' Sparky, the state's retired electric chair; and war heroes from various conflicts. Another billboard invites tourists to the Texas Prison Museum, its sign decorated with a ball and chain.

Pickett first entered "the Walls," a foreboding brick-red behemoth set in the middle of a residential neighborhood of ranch-style homes and big yards, in 1974. A newcomer to the town of Huntsville, he found himself in the midst of crisis. Three inmates had barricaded themselves and a number of staff inside the prison library, in what would become one of the longest prison hostage sieges in U.S. history. Jim Estelle, director of the Texas prison system and a parishioner, called on Pickett, then 40, to minister to the families of the hostages.

After 11 days of waiting, Pickett spoke by telephone with two hostages who had volunteered as human shields for the prison break, Judy Standley, a prison librarian, and Yvonne Beseda, a teacher. They called the chaplain to convey their final goodbyes to family as their captors prepared their escape.

Fred Gomez Carrasco and his men had constructed a makeshift shield, a Trojan horse of sorts, concealing the convicts and their hostages, the two women and a priest, as they shuffled from the library to a waiting van. Prison officials planned to blast them with high-pressure water hoses and rescue the hostages, but the hoses failed. Carrasco and one of his men shot the women, and Carrasco then turned the barrel of the gun on himself.

"It was difficult to talk to them in the afternoon ... and six hours later they were murdered," Pickett said. "It was traumatic."

Three years later, after the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, the Presbyterian Church considered taking a position, and Pickett, emotionally scarred from the siege, delivered a presentation. "I took the position we got to do something in favor of the victims," he said. The church adopted an anti-deathpenalty position, and Pickett accepted the decision, with reservations. In 1980, Pickett returned to the Walls to take the job of chaplain to the 2,200-strong general prison population. He organized prison choirs, visited dying inmates and helped lower the dead from their homemade nooses. And, said Roy Villanueva, who served time at Huntsville for hiring an undercover cop to kill his wife, Pickett became known among prisoners for being a stickler for strictly Christian music. "He was concerned about what messages got to us and keeping us focused," said Villanueva, now a Southern Baptist minister in Geronimo, Texas. "He was redirecting our minds."

In 1982, Texas resumed executions. The state did away with Ol' Sparky and introduced lethal injection, the method now used by all but one of the 38 states that still have the death penalty. Pickett's job expanded to include counseling the condemned, and he found his Christian mission: the ministry of presence. "I made a commitment: nobody dies alone. Anyone that I can be a friend to I would," said Pickett. He remained by the side of Charlie Brooks, the first to die by lethal injection, until the end of the seven minutes it took Texas to end his life.

When prisoners arrived from death row, Pickett was there waiting for them in the "death house." He offered spiritual counsel, facilitated phone calls and familial visits, and in the final hours before execution explained the series of events that would end their lives. "My responsibility," he said, "was to prepare them to die. His task, the warden told him, was "to seduce [the prisoner's] emotions so he will not fight coming out of the cell, and he will not fight getting up on the gurney and being strapped down."

Eight small steps separate the holding cell, where the condemned pass their final day, from the execution chamber. The death chamber, as Pickett refers to it, is much smaller than one imagines from television. A sickly blue paint covers the brick walls, and until the state recently installed a glass partition, witnesses stood only a few feet away from the gurney.

Seen from the outside, Pickett's role in the execution process appears ambiguous. He and the warden were the only witnesses to the "tie-down team" who strapped in the prisoner and inserted the needles to administer the lethal doses that cost the state $86.06 per inmate: potassium chloride, pancuronium bromide, and sodium pentathol. He searched the inmate's body for viable veins. He wrote a manual called The Team Approach to Execution in the State of Texas that outlined the role of each participant -- excluding his own.

But Pickett is clear on the part he played: "I was visiting him as his last friend. I never strapped him down. It was the law and I couldn't do anything about that. I was not part of the execution team. I was part of the ministry to the man."

In 1989, Johnny Paul Penry, a white man with narrow eyes and a tight jaw, entered the death chamber toting crayons and coloring books. Pickett remembers the mentally retarded Penry, enthralled by his comic book characters and oblivious to his impending death. He was probably just as unaware when an 11th-hour Supreme Court ruling saved him on the grounds that Texas law had wrongly prevented jurors from fully weighing his mental disability as a mitigating factor.

Later that year, Carlos De Luna walked into the death house with big round brown eyes and asked if he could call Pickett "daddy." De Luna had been sentenced to die for robbery and the murder of Wanda Jean Lopez, a service station clerk in South Texas. "He never had a daddy of his own," recalled Pickett. After the experience, he concluded with no uncertainty: "I knew he was innocent when I watched him die."

In 2006, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune strongly supported his belief. The three-part report revealed that the prosecution's only eyewitness could not positively identify De Luna as the killer, and no physical evidence linked him to Lopez. The newspaper also uncovered an important finding that could have saved De Lunas' life: the gas-station robbery -- which elevated the murder to a capital offense -- may not have occurred at all.

Nonetheless, just as Pickett had done with the others -- with the resigned, the angry, and the clearly innocent -- he placed his hand on De Luna's ankle and waited as the lethal mix of drugs shot through the man's arms. But De Luna didn't die on cue as most did. He was able to move after the first injection, a powerful anesthesia, and after the second, a paralytic. Even after the third and final injection, which stops the heart, he showed signs of life before finally expiring.

It was not fast, it was not easy, and Pickett doubts it was painless.

At the end of the Bible lesson comes the phrase, "And then here we come with the word -- repent." "What does it mean?" asks Pickett. "Do a 180," he answers.

Pickett witnessed some 60 executions after Carlos De Luna. But De Luna's execution hastened the transformation that was to come, three years later, when the death penalty came full circle into Pickett's personal life. Ignacio Cuevas, one of the three inmates who had orchestrated the 1974 prison siege that took the lives of Pickett's two parishioners, showed up to die.

As Pickett recalls that pivotal moment, he flips through a yellowed scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and photographs of the siege. In one, soon after the botched escape, a young, darkhaired Pickett embraces Jim Estelle, the prison director.

Seventeen years after those photographs were taken, Cuevas died on the gurney, with little fanfare. There was none of the hoped-for closure, no making peace. It brought nothing. In the hours after Cuevas died, Pickett recalled Judy Standley's final words to him, "It isn't how you die, but rather, how you live." Pickett closes the scrapbook and reflects on both the prison siege and Cuevas' execution. "I can see how hard it can be to understand, for just one event to change me, and then to change again," he says. But at the heart of Pickett's journey is a reflection on life. The death penalty is not about dying, he says. It's about how a society chooses to live."

Pickett later brought his perspective to Texas legislators as they considered a moratorium on the death penalty. He mused how in life men as different as Carlos de Luna, most likely an innocent man, and an unrepentant Ignacio Cuevas shared little more than the absoluteness of their ending.

"All 95 met the same fate," he said in testimony before Texas lawmakers in 2000. "The repentant died with the unrepentant, the mentally competent died with the mentally incompetent and the innocent died with the guilty." It has been more than a decade since Pickett left the Walls. The message of repentance he once shared with the imprisoned and those condemned to die is now heard by the living and the free.

Michelle Garcia, a native Texan, recently completed a Knight fellowship in El Salvador with the International Center for Journalists. She is based in New York.

 
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