At the Death House Door (IMDB), which won the Full Frame Inspiration Award, tells the fascinating story of Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister from Huntsville, Texas, who served for fifteen years as the prison’s death house chaplain, presiding over nearly 100 executions, including the state’s–and the world’s–first lethal injection. The film, directed by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (both of whom worked on 1994’s Hoop Dreams), narrates Pickett’s conversion from a supporter of the death penalty to an opponent, in part because Pickett began to recognize many of the inherent flaws in the death penalty. We are reminded, for example, that blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be executed than whites and that people who are innocent have been executed. But Pickett’s conversion is also a moral one based on the decision that the Bible teaches that taking a life is wrong, even when it’s being done as punishment by the state.
It’s quite clear that, from the beginning, Pickett was haunted by the demands of his ministry, which consisted, in part, of ensuring that the inmate would be relatively compliant when led into the execution chamber. To work through those mixed emotions, Pickett recorded audio tapes after every execution, discussing the details of the case, his conversations with the prisoner, anything to help him make sense of what he was doing. While we hear only bits and pieces of Pickett’s audio reflections, they offer an incredible resource, an oral history of Pickett’s evolution into a death penalty opponent. The tapes were originally meant for Pickett’s private use. His wife and children knew nothing about the tapes, and Pickett had never listened to them after making the recordings, but clearly he felt the need to save them, and we see them carefully preserved in plastic boxes. And as Pickett’s story unfolds, we realize that there are a few cases, in particular, that haunt him, including the case of Carlos deLuna, an inmate executed in 1989 whom Pickett was convinced was innocent.
In fact, it was the 2006 investigation of two Chicago Tribune reporters into deLuna’s case that led James and Gilbert to Pickett in the first place. In addition to a healthy reminder of the importance of good investigative journalism, the Tribune story helped to flesh out the details of the case, pointing out that another man, Carlos Hernandez, was likely the murderer. The reporters work with deLuna’s sister, Rose Rhoton, to investigate the case further, and Pickett quickly becomes an important ally in seeking to get deLuna’s verdict overturned and in putting an end to the death penalty. And while Rhoton becomes a powerful force in her own right, the film’s primary story belongs to Pickett, and despite his reluctance and privacy, we get a clear sense of how his experiences have shaped him, leading to his decision to stop presiding over executions. This reluctance is illustrated in a powerful scene at the family dining table, in which Pickett’s four children all express surprise when they discovered their father’s opposition to the death penalty.
As I watched At the Death House Door, I couldn’t hep but think about other films that have presented powerful arguments about the death penalty–Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Jessica Sanders’ After Innocence among them–and like both of those films, Death House makes us acutely aware of the irreversibility of the death penalty. In addition, like The Thin Blue Line, Death House takes place in Texas, and Pickett reminds us in a couple of places of the “Wild West” mentality that seems to inform the use of the death penalty in that state. We are even given a brief flashback to then-governor George W. Bush’s decision to proceed with the execution of Karla Faye Tucker. But the film generally avoids any easy pandering to anti-Bush sentiment, choosing instead a more somber approach to the death penalty issue, viewing it through Pickett’s thoughtful and reflective eyes. At the Death House Door is a powerful indictment of the death penalty, one that introduces us to the emotional transformation of Pickett without cheap sentimentality.