Ministering to the Dead
A death row chaplain has a change of heart in At the Death House Door
If there is such a thing as a typical convenience-store killing, the murder of Wanda Lopez fits the bill. A gas-station clerk in Corpus Christi in 1983, Lopez was the only employee in the store when she called police to report a suspicious man outside the store who had a knife; they told her they couldn't do anything unless the man entered the store. Several minutes later, an eyewitness was filling his car up with gas when he saw the man dragging Lopez by her hair toward the gas station's storeroom behind the counter. Lopez, a single mother, had died by the time police arrived.
For a murder that seems even cinematic in its brevity and plot, what happened after Lopez's sad and sudden death must be one of the messiest and prolonged aftermaths of a murder in recent American history. Twenty-three years after the killing, two reporters from the Chicago Tribune – the newspaper whose other investigations prompted the governor of Illinois to issue a moratorium on executions in that state – unearthed ample evidence that Carlos de Luna, who was executed in 1989 for the crime, had nothing to do with it, even though 40 minutes after the murder, police found de Luna, shirtless and without shoes, hiding underneath a truck several hundred yards from the gas station. "Don't shoot! You got me!" he pleaded with police that night. (See www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/chi-tx-1-story,0,4563517.html for Steve Mills and Maurice Possley's investigative piece.)
The mystery of how a man who appeared to confess immediately was apparently innocent is a gripping story, but it is only part of Steve James and Peter Gilbert's intimate and probing documentary At the Death House Door. James and Gilbert, the filmmakers behind Hoop Dreams and Stevie, call the investigation into who actually killed Lopez one of the "vertebrae" of the film but not its spine. They focus instead on the Rev. Carroll Pickett, the man who unexpectedly became the minister to 95 Texas death row prisoners as their executions in Huntsville's death chamber loomed nearer and nearer. And as the prisoner whose innocence seems the most likely of all those convicts, the case of Carlos de Luna still lingers uncomfortably in Pickett's mind.
"We needed to figure out how much we get into the 60 Minutes version of this case – who did what – and that was a tricky balance to find," James says. "We had lots of information that we could have put in," Gilbert explains, "but hopefully what you see is you have enough doubt that you see [de Luna] shouldn't have been put to death."
At first glance, Carroll Pickett is an unlikely subject for a documentary, particularly one as penetrating as At the Death House Door. He is soft-spoken, guarded, and quiet. He seems to choose the counsel of God and himself before asking others for advice. No one would claim that he is verbose. His wife has never seen him cry. But whenever he appears in the documentary, he is a galvanizing presence. "One of the things we found fascinating about Pickett is that he's not an outwardly emotional person – he keeps things close to the chest," James says. "And that was something about his personality that was tied to his upbringing; his father was not terribly giving, but it was also a survival tactic. When you hear about a guy like this, in people's minds, they imagine a guy who was spilling his guts out to the camera, and they see the film, and it's not that way. We find that it makes him that much more fascinating and moving."
Pickett never intended to become the chaplain to Texas' most violent offenders. As the minister of a Presbyterian church in Huntsville in the early Seventies, Pickett found himself in the unenviable position of caring for two church members who knew that they were going to die as hostages in a bloody and lengthy siege by prisoners in 1974. The women called Pickett near the end of the siege to tell him how they wanted their funerals to be conducted, even as they were comforting their children and spouses that everything would turn out all right. "I will never come to this place again," Pickett told himself about the prison after the siege ended and he had buried the two women.
Because his wife had insisted that their marriage was crumbling as Pickett's commitments to his congregation and various civic activities flourished, Pickett resigned from his pastorship and gave his wife a ring engraved with the words, "The best is yet to be." And then a prison warden called, asking Pickett to become the prison chaplain for a year. He said yes, moved his family into the small prison housing given to him, and his wife filed for divorce. "I couldn't change me," Pickett confesses in the documentary. "I just spent more time answering the needs of the imprisoned and the ill and the dying."
Even though he had sworn he would never enter the prison system again, Pickett eventually found himself consigned to minister to the only surviving convict of the siege that had killed his two congregation members. The prisoner, Ignacio Cuevas, confessed his guilt to Pickett in the hours before his execution but said "I am innocent" in Spanish in the death chamber. Pickett recalls Cuevas' execution in the documentary: "I thought, 'Here you've told me not half an hour ago that you had confessed every day to this sin, and yet in public you have been so programmed by the law and lawyers and others and your own pride and ego that you're still trying to be innocent,' and he turned his face away from all the people and he said, 'Okay, warden, roll.'"
"The intimacy of this film is something that was really rewarding to film," Gilbert says, "and one of the key things is that it really allows you to feel in the moment with Pickett."
Of all the condemned prisoners Pickett ministered to, the specter of Carlos de Luna and his possible innocence still irrevocably haunt him. De Luna always insisted that he was innocent; Pickett believes him and has become something of a celebrity in the anti-death-penalty movement, particularly after his unflinching memoir, Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain, was published in 2002. "What intrigued us was the fact that he didn't make this change overnight," Gilbert says. "It was a real process for him; we were able to look into what that meant for him over time and to think about some very serious questions about how you might feel knowing that someone might be innocent and watching their execution."
Now living near Lake Conroe, Pickett retired from the Presbyterian church just before James and Gilbert approached him about appearing in the documentary. "As it turned out, within just two months [after retiring], here come Steve and Peter and all these people," Pickett says. "God worked it out where I was as free as they needed. We spent two years this month since I first met those men. ... One thing I'll tell you about Peter and Steve – there's not a dishonest bone in their bodies; there's nothing tricky about them. They tell you if you're going to have a rough day with tough questions; I admire them."
Pickett has watched At the Death House Door but hasn't entirely absorbed it. "I thought it was extremely well-done, but I would have to watch it several times to get the full impact," he says. "I've seen the whole show, but I haven't seen the entire meaning."
At the Death House DoorDocumentary Feature, Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere
Sunday, March 9, 4pm, Paramount
Wednesday, March 12, 1pm, Austin Convention Center