Saturday, July 20, 2002

Former Texas Death Row Chaplain Speaks Out Against Executions

The Australian Magazine, July 20, 2002

A former Texas prison chaplain turns his macabre experience toward the common good. 

Carroll Pickett stood alongside each of 95 inmates as a lethal injection slowed his heart rate and the state of Texas executed another prisoner. He was the prison chaplain in Huntsville, Texas, for 15 years, and he grieved for each and every doomed man.

He had a habit of resting one hand lightly on the ankle of the condemned prisoner as he lay waiting to die, with family members and the media watching behind glass only metres away.

Pickett became chaplain at The Walls, Huntsville's maximum-security prison, in 1980, 2 years before the state lifted an 18-year moratorium on the death penalty and put the 1st man to death by lethal injection, rather than the older, less humane method of the electric chair. The affable Presbyterian minister had built up 3 small-town parishes in rural Texas and was unaware of the state prison's death chamber before moving to Huntsville.

"Somehow I don't think it was God's intention that I remain a country minister all my life," he says. "Maybe somebody knew I'd be needed at the prison in 1982, and that's how I came to be there when the state started executing people again."

From the beginning, he was told by the prison warden that he was to play a vital role in the executions: "Spend the day with the prisoner before the execution, talk to him, listen to him and - above all - seduce his emotions so he won't fight." Pickett decided to do more; he wanted to be present as a friend for the convicted man's last day on Earth. Although opposed to capital punishment, the Presbyterian Church gave tacit support to the minister's role in the death house over the years.

In the days leading to the 1st execution, Pickett was plagued with questions of how he could be party to such a barbaric and un-Christian act. "I strongly believed a person's need for comfort was no greater than when he is forced to deal with the realities of death," he writes. Finally, he resolved that no-one, not even a hardened criminal about to be executed, should be made to face death alone. "I made up my mind I would do more than seduce the condemned man's mind, I would minister as best I could."

Five years after retiring, the 69-year-old has crystallised his thoughts and nightmares about the death chamber in a recently published book, Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain, written with another Texan author, Carlton Stowers.

The execution routine became a macabre pattern in Pickett's life. The chaplain would meet the inmate on death row at 6am on the day before the execution, which was scheduled for one minute past midnight. He never read the prisoner's charge sheet before meeting him: "I was convinced that if I was to counsel and befriend him over the next 18 hours, I could best do so with as clean a slate as possible." Throughout that final day, the chaplain would be on hand to talk about anything with the convict. He would offerprayers or hymns, write letters, and meet members of his family who would come to say goodbye and sometimes watch the execution.

"This was the hardest part of all, because here was another set of victims and nobody wanted to hear from them," Pickett says. "Maybe the guy did commit the crime, but his mother didn't do it and his 4 brothers didn't do it."

No single death prompted him to finally leave the job; it was a series of executions that led him to believe the state was killing people who were mentally retarded. Despite assurances from the governor's office and the White House that no-one who was mentally unfit would be put to death, Pickett maintains some inmates never knew what was happening to them. When Johnny Paul Penry arrived in the death house with colouring books and crayons, Pickett knew the man couldn't understand the state was going to kill him in a matter of hours. Soon after came the execution of Carlos de Luna, another man with a similarly low level of intelligence. Pickett spent the days afterwards wracked with a guilt he had never known, believing he had failed the inmate in his final hours. His anxiety increased after the execution of Leonel Herrera, the 1st 
man on death row Pickett seriously considered might have been innocent. "There are times, generally in the wee hours of my own restless nights, when the voices of the Leonel Herreras whom I've met still visit me, crying out their innocence. And I am doomed to forever wonder," he writes.After five years trying to ignore the awful memories of the death chamber, Pickett has found a new calling as a vocal member of the anti-capital punishment lobby. "I want to talk about it now," he says. "As so many inmates would say to me, `How can Texas kill people who kill people, to show people that killing people is wrong?'"

Years at the coalface have led Pickett to believe that the death penalty does nothing to deter would-be criminals. He is concerned that the burgeoning Texan prison system is actually serving to increase the number of people who are put behind bars. "We started out with 22,000 inmates in the 1980s and now there are 160,000. There's a lot of people in there who don't need to be. I think we're executing innocent people."

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