Sunday, March 29, 2009

At the Death House Door (2008)

Carroll Pickett was a devout minister so dedicated that his congregation saw him more than his own wife and kids. When his wife asked him to leave his post at the church for the sake of their family and to save their marriage, he acquiesced. Shortly thereafter, Pickett was offered a ministerial post at the State Penitentiary in Huntsville, TX. He accepted the post but wasn't prepared for the bleakness and loneliness of prison. But, just like he did with the congregation, he built upon it. His new church had no organ, no choir. So, he started a choir with the inmates, including one of Don Ho's former backup singers, as well as a former Texas Supreme Court Justice who Pickett says, "sang like an angel."

Crosses marking prison cemetary graves The documentary dovetails Pickett's life--his devotion to work and how he came to oppose the death penalty--with the story of Carlos De Luna--a death-row inmate Pickett counseled prior to being executed for a crime widely believed De Luna didn't commit.

In 1982, Pickett learned he'd minister a death-row inmate for the first execution in Texas since 1964. Pickett would spend the day--from 6am through midnight when the inmate would be strapped to the gurney for the lethal injection--with the prisoner. He'd be responsible to earn the inmate's trust, counsel him, and above all, "seduce his that he won't fight at midnight."

Charles Brooks was his first. He presided over 95 during his tenure at Huntsville. After each execution, he'd return home and record an audio tape transcript that included his reactions, reflections and thoughts about the prisoner. In the audio clips, you can hear the burdened sadness on Pickett's voice. While extremely hopeful and a mighty believer in people's power to change, Pickett's family suffered due to his dedication to his work. In a scene where his grown children question Pickett about his views on capital punishment (they don't know with certainty), it's obvious how little they know him and vice versa. Although he's extremely forthcoming and open, the kids contend he kept his emotions locked up and they never knew what was going on with him; his post-execution tapes were a revelation.

But the question remains, was Pickett ultimately serving the state or the inmates?

Directors: Peter Gilbert and Steve James

Country: US

Genre: Documentary

Run time: 100 minutes

Scale: 4

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