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Television Review

Documentary listens in 'At the Death House Door'

The Rev. Carroll Pickett at the Huntsville, Texas, prison cemetery. The Rev. Carroll Pickett at the Huntsville, Texas, prison cemetery. (Kevin horan/ifc)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / May 29, 2008

There must be a moment of giddiness when filmmakers realize they've found the perfect subject: someone eloquent and emotional, bound to a major issue of our time, possessing the perspective and the artifacts to give his story heft.

For Steve James and Peter Gilbert, co-directors of the moving documentary "At the Death House Door," that man is the Rev. Carroll Pickett. The longtime chaplain at a Huntsville, Texas, prison, Pickett spent the final day - and final moments - with 95 inmates sentenced to die by lethal injection. After every execution, he made a cassette tape, recording the details of the day along with eloquent, poetic thoughts.

James and Gilbert, who collaborated on the award-winning documentary "Hoop Dreams," met Pickett while following somebody else: two Chicago Tribune reporters investigating the case of Carlos De Luna, who may have been wrongly executed in Huntsville. Pickett was present for De Luna's execution, a botched procedure that took 11 long minutes and surely caused the inmate pain. It was a key step on Pickett's own journey from death penalty supporter to opponent. His cassette recording describes his experience watching De Luna's brown, questioning eyes.

In the film, which premieres tonight at 9 on IFC, Pickett guides us through his own deeply personal tale, beginning with an early experience as minister to two female Huntsville prison workers who were killed in a brutal inmate siege. Over time, he changes from dispassionate observer to unwilling participant - albeit one conditioned, by an abusive father, to suppress his own emotions. For many years, Pickett made those tapes alone in an empty house: His first wife divorced him over his devotion to his work. When he remarried, his new wife discovered that Pickett still needed his recorder after every execution. "Those tapes," she tells the filmmakers, "must be his tears."

This isn't merely Pickett's story; James and Gilbert also follow the reporters as they trace De Luna's case, and watch De Luna's sister join forces with Pickett and other death-penalty opponents. But the film wouldn't have half the impact without this flawed, spiritual man as centerpiece. It's hard to imagine a person with a better perspective on the death penalty, and it's striking that Pickett doesn't regret his presence at so many deaths.

"The system's broke," he says, "but no man should die without a friend."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

At the Death House Door

On: IFC

Time: Tonight, 9-10:45

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