[DP] Fwd: Witnessing death turns minister into execution critic
carole646 at hotmail.com
Mon Mar 18 15:26:12 CST 2002
>From: Rick Halperin <rhalperi at post.cis.smu.edu>
>Reply-To: TCADP-BOARD01 at yahoogroups.com
>To: TCADP-BOARD01 <TCADP-BOARD01 at yahoogroups.com>
>Subject: [TCADP-BOARD01] death penalty news---TEXAS
>Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 23:54:12 -0600 (CST)
>Witnessing death turns minister into execution critic
>Once the poisons began to flow, Texas death house chaplain Carroll
>Pickett told the condemned man, unconsciousness would follow swiftly.
>Breathing out would speed the process. Together they practiced counting
>the seconds -- 1 ... 2 ... 3.
>Offering such lessons in how to die increasingly tormented Pickett, a
>Presbyterian minister, and in this case the inmate was lost in childlike
>Would the needles hurt?
>Could Pickett hold his hand?
>Those were the things the killer, 27-year-old Carlos DeLuna, wanted to
>Later, after DeLuna had mumbled his last words, again begged the chaplain
>to hold his hand -- an act officially forbidden -- and quietly died, a
>shaken Pickett stood alone in the death chamber with the killer's corpse.
>The December 1989 execution was a key moment in his transformation from a
>backer of capital punishment to an outspoken opponent.
>"Gone were the warden and the guards, those who had administered the
>deadly chemicals and the witnesses, leaving me alone in a silent, sterile
>world that I badly wanted to lash out against," he recalled. "I wanted to
>scream out the fact that he'd not even understood what we were doing.
>"Instead, I only breathed deeply and kept my vigil. Still trembling, I
>reached out and took his hand."
>Today, Pickett, who retired in 1995 after 15 years as chaplain at
>Huntsville's Walls Unit, is a fixture on the anti-death penalty circuit.
>Drawing on his experience in scores of executions, he has spoken to civic
>clubs and churches, authored opinion articles for national newspapers,
>testified in legislative hearings, appeared on National Public Radio's
>Witness to an Execution series and, most recently, co-written a book
>chronicling his prison career.
>The book, Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain, written
>with Texas author Carlton Stowers, will be issued in May by St. Martin's
>In search of justice
>"This was an evolving process," Pickett, 68, noted last week at his
>Huntsville office. "I was raised in South Texas under the Old West
>philosophy. My father was a proponent of eye for an eye, tooth for a
>tooth. I was raised in a town where the sheriff was king. We were all
>taught that justice is punishment.
>"The more I worked for the Texas prison system, the more I began to see
>there is not total justice in punishment. ... At one point, I did support
>capital punishment. I was wrong."
>Pickett offered familiar arguments to back his anti-death penalty views:
>The punishment is irreversible, and innocent people likely have been put
>to death. The penalty falls inequitably on minorities and the poor. It is
>applied unfairly and doesn't deter crime.
>"I fundamentally believe we shouldn't take anything that we can't
>restore," he said. He emphatically supports life without parole and
>believes some death row inmates should be eligible for parole. As many as
>60 percent of death row inmates, he said, are genuinely remorseful for
>His views draw spirited rebuttal from death penalty supporters.
>"People are not sent to death row to be rehabilitated," countered Dianne
>Clements, executive director of Houston-based Justice for All, a pro-
>death penalty victims' rights organization. "Belief in God, repentance of
>sin can be meaningful spiritual achievements. But they don't undo the
>crime. People are not sent to death row to find God. They are sent to
>death row to be punished."
>Stowers, an award-winning true-crime author whose 1998 book To the Last
>Breath: Three Women Fight for the Truth Behind a Child's Tragic Murder
>was based on the killing of a 2-year-old Alvin girl, said Pickett's
>persuasive powers are potent because they are low-key.
>The avuncular, white-haired Pickett, who now works as director of a
>national amateur jump rope association, doesn't "pound on the Bible and
>quote Scripture," Stowers said.
>"He is very soft-spoken, very low-key, very comfortable with himself,"
>said Stowers, who favors the death penalty in some cases. "He never asked
>me, `Hey, how do you feel about this?' At no point do you feel he's
>trying to sway you to his side. The book is about what he saw, felt and
>believes. He presents his case and asks you to think about it."
>Pickett's 1st encounter with the Texas prison system came in July 1974 --
>long before he became a prison chaplain -- when he was summoned to
>comfort families of hostages seized during drug lord Fred Gomez
>Carrasco's attempted jailbreak.
>For 11 days, the hostages, including members of Pickett's First
>Presbyterian Church, were held by Carrasco and his heavily armed cohorts
>in the prison library. On the final day, Carrasco advised the minister by
>telephone that he finally was making his break, and allowed him to talk
>with hostages who volunteered to go with him.
>Two of them, Presbyterian church women, accurately foretold their deaths
>in the foiled escape. One urged Pickett to proceed with her daughter's
>planned wedding; the other calmly detailed desires for her funeral.
>Carrasco, one of his associates and the 2 women were killed. Another
>hostage, a priest, was seriously injured.
>Devastated by the ordeal of the nation's longest prison standoff, Pickett
>vowed he'd never set foot in the storied, red-brick prison again.
>For 6 years, he concentrated on family life and church work. He
>successfully ran for school board. But in early 1980 he became chaplain
>of the Walls, in part to save a marriage strained by the around-the-clock
>demands placed on a "free world" minister.
>His duties were to conduct Sunday services and to minister to prisoners
>"For 2 1/2 years, I ministered to dying convicts, to dying staff and the
>staff's family," Pickett said. "I assisted with those who committed
>suicide. I assisted twice in cutting the ropes because the guards on duty
>didn't want to do it. To me, that was the ministry that God had called me
>to do. For 2 1/2 years, I didn't even know the death house was there.
>"The Supreme Court had stopped executions, and nobody ever talked about
>When the high court cleared the way for resumed executions in 1982,
>Pickett was told he would be counselor to the condemned.
>"You're going to be with the inmate all day," the warden told him, "and
>it's important that you gain his trust as quickly as possible. Talk to
>him, listen to him, comfort him as much as you possibly can. But, above
>all else, I want you to seduce his emotions so he won't fight."
>"The 1st time I stepped into the death house," Pickett said, "I was
>On Dec. 7, 1982, the state executed Charlie Brooks Jr., 40, for the
>kidnapping-murder of a Fort Worth car-lot employee. His was the 1st of
>more than 40 executions at which Pickett was chaplain. Many others during
>Pickett's tenure ended in last-minute stays.
>So emotionally racking was the job that the chaplain sometimes left the
>execution chamber drenched in perspiration.
>Texas has executed 262 killers since capital punishment was reinstated.
>As chaplain, Pickett was both spiritual counselor, confidant and official
>representative of the prison administration.
>"I never read the offense jackets," Pickett said. "I always tried to
>relate to them as a human being."
>At their sides to the end
>Pickett greeted the inmates when they arrived at the Walls, facilitated
>visits and phone calls, helped them polish final statements, carefully
>explained the sequence of events that would lead to their deaths and --
>finally -- accompanied them to the death house. Often he conducted their
>funerals and counseled their survivors.
>Once, Pickett -- at the inmate's request -- called a radio station to
>request it play the killer's favorite song. Then, as the death hour
>approached with the request unfulfilled, he called again. The song began
>seconds before the killer's last walk was set to begin. Pickett
>successfully implored the warden to delay the execution 3 minutes as the
>inmate raptly listened to his radio as it played the Willie Nelson tune
>Help Me Make It Through The Night.
>Another time, Pickett noted that a small window, the sole source of
>outside light in the holding area, caused condemned inmates
>consternation. Through it, they could see the growing shadows that
>heralded their deaths. The chaplain arranged to have the window painted
>"These may seem like small things," Pickett said, "but to the prisoners,
>they were very, very important."
>Even as his distaste for capital punishment grew, Pickett felt compelled
>to appear neutral.
>"If I told the inmate I favored capital punishment, I'd lose his trust,"
>he said. "If I said I opposed the death penalty, I would lose my job. My
>job was to minister to the inmates.
>"I didn't make the law. I didn't serve on the jury. I didn't inject the
>Pickett acknowledged some death penalty opponents have faulted him for
>not publicly decrying capital punishment while employed by the state.
>"Sometimes I get stung," he said.
>`Was he innocent?'
>No single execution can be credited with changing his views on capital
>punishment, he said. But the execution of DeLuna for the murder of a
>Corpus Christi convenience-store clerk and the near-execution of Johnny
>Paul Penry, a rapist and killer with an IQ of 60 who arrived at the death
>house with crayons and a coloring book, played a role.
>So, too, did the execution of Leonel Torres Herrera, convicted of
>murdering a state trooper during a traffic stop. Despite public questions
>of Herrera's guilt -- based, in part, on his nephew's affidavit swearing
>his own father had committed the crime -- the inmate was executed in May
>"Was he innocent? Had something very wrong taken place as he had stated?"
>Pickett says in his memoir. "I am doomed to forever wonder."
>In January 1995 the state of Texas for the 1st time in more than 40 years
>executed two inmates in a single day. They were Clifton Russell Jr. and
>Willie Williams, sentenced, respectively, for Abilene and Houston
>The executions were the 6th and 7th in a month, and Pickett felt drained.
>He had to force himself to report for work. The back-to-back executions,
>he felt, were atrocities. The situation worsened when prison authorities
>left the timing of the execution of the second inmate, Williams, to
>Williams relieved the pressure by asking the chaplain to end his waiting.
>Afterward, though, Pickett experienced sharp abdominal pains that no
>medical tests could diagnose.
>"My problem," he wrote, "was not of the body but of the mind and spirit.
>I had watched too many people die in the name of justice and vengeance.
>My feelings about what was taking place with increasing regularity had
>grown stronger. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hide my
>thoughts about the barbaric nature of executions. "I began to consider
>the possibility that it was time to step away."
>(source: Houston Chronicle)
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