Reverend rebukes the ultimate condemnation
Former death-row chaplain explains his opposition to executing inmates
“Nobody knew anything about that end of the prison. It was ‘out there.’ It didn’t become ‘live’ until 1982, when the warden called us all together to say, ‘We’re going to have an execution.’ ”
Those are the words of the Rev. Carroll Pickett, speaking by phone from his home in Montgomery, Texas, describing how two years after starting to work as chaplain at the infamous Huntsville Prison, he was informed that his job description was about to change.
Pickett would become intimately familiar over the next 15 years with the prison’s death row—the terra incognita “down that end of the prison”—a job that would cause him to be the “last friend” of 95 condemned inmates put to death after Texas reinstated the death penalty, by lethal injection, in 1982.
The 75-year-old Pickett—now an outspoken opponent of the death penalty as a result of his “traumatic” experiences at Huntsville—will be speaking this Sunday (April 26) in Chico State’s BMU Auditorium at an event hosted by the Chico chapter of the ACLU, and co-sponsored by the Interfaith Council, the Chico Peace & Justice Center, and SCAR (Student Coalition Advocating Reform).
Joining Pickett will be former death row inmate Greg Wilhoit, who spent five years on Oklahoma State Prison’s death row after being wrongly convicted of the death of his wife, and Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.
Pickett is scheduled to give a guest sermon at Trinity United Methodist Church on the morning of his university lecture. The day before, he’s set to host an afternoon showing of At the Death House Door, a documentary film about his death-row experiences, at the Pageant Theatre.
Pickett spoke passionately on the telephone for approximately 45 minutes about the injustices and horrors he witnessed as death-row chaplain, such as seeing people put to death “who didn’t pull the trigger” but were condemned to die according to Texas’ Law of Parties, which allows a person to be executed for being involved in a crime in which someone is killed, whether or not they did the actual killing.
The innocent, the mentally impaired, and the “changed”—inmates rehabilitated so much in prison that Pickett “would not have been afraid to take them home”—are some of the people that Pickett watched die.
He brought up the 1995 execution of Mario Marquez, who had an IQ of 65. “It’s terrible to stand with a kid who doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said. Pickett added that widely-known news anchor Ted Koppel witnessed Marquez’s execution and afterward told Pickett that he would never again witness another execution because it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
Pickett also talked about 27-year-old Carlos De Luna, who was put to death in Huntsville in 1989 for a murder that another man bragged about committing after De Luna was executed: “That little Spanish boy, I was certain that he was innocent.”
He recalled being with De Luna when he was being administered the three successive shots of different chemicals—not simply one injection, as is commonly believed—that it takes to execute a death-row inmate. Many times, said Pickett, it will take numerous tries to find a “good vein,” painfully “probing in the shoulders, ankles, different parts of the body” with a variety of different-sized needles.
After the second shot, of Pavulon—the brand name for pancuronium, a drug that “freezes the muscles, primarily the lungs,” and, according to Pickett, is no longer used by most vets to kill dogs and cats because it is too painful for the animals—a strapped-down De Luna raised his head to try to say something to Pickett, but was unable to talk.
“Those big brown eyes just kept lookin’ at me,” Pickett said emotionally in his warm, Texas accent. “He was hurtin’. I know that he was hurtin’. Of course, knowing that he was innocent is even worse.
“There were 62 more [executions that I witnessed] after him, but that one did it for me.”
De Luna’s story is featured in At the Death House Door.
The sense Pickett makes of his time at Huntsville is that “I can tell people what I saw. I just want to tell people. I can’t change a dyed-in-the-wool [pro-death-penalty] person without the facts. And I’ve got facts.
“There’s hope,” Pickett continued. “We still have hope that we’re going to get rid of the death penalty. We’ve done it in several states. … We are killing innocent people. We are in the process of murder by state. … It’s not what America should be proud of. It’s not pleasant.”