At the Death House Door: A Film That Pushed Me Over the Edge

John ArmstrongEthics

Death Hosue album I have had very serious doubts about the practice of capital punishment in America for decades. I know the arguments for it quite well. I fell back on those arguments, and the Old Testament texts that can be used to support them, until I felt the whole issue crumbling under my feet about 15 years ago. Like so many similar changes in my thinking I processed my thoughts, read more widely, studied the Scripture much more carefully and just listened a great deal. I read the classical texts on the issue from church history and the modern arguments by supporters and opponents. Like so many of these kinds of issues there is a great deal of emotion involved in coming to any conclusion. Most of the time your mind will go to the worst case scenario and leave it there. But the worst case scenario argument was finally resolved for me by watching a new film, At the Death House Door. Let me explain why.This remarkable film is the story of Rev. Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister. After serving as a local pastor in Huntsville, Texas, where he performed the funeral of two ladies in his congregation who were taken hostage and brutally killed in a 1970s attempt by two men to break out, Pickett became more involved in the prison. He eventually become the prison chaplain and left his local parish ministry. moving into a small home across the street from the prison. He would also lose his marriage in the process, a sad testimony to the stress he lived under for decades. He ended up spending the remainder of his entire ministerial lifetime working in and out of the famous Texas penitentiary at Huntsville. The story the film presents is that of dealing with capital punishment. Pickett was the minister who was there for 95 inmates who were put to death when the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was not "cruel and unusual punishment" and Texas began to put criminals to death more than any other American state. The number of Texas executions now numbers over 400. There is a brief clip on this film of former-governor George W. Bush explaining why he believed in this action of the state. (Bush has no sympathy for ending capital punishment even though it has been proven, beyond any reasonable shadow of doubt, that innocent people have been executed in Texas!)

Pickett At the Death House Door
is not fun to watch but I would urge every serious Christian to see it. Not only is Carroll Pickett's story remarkable but the way he tells it is moving. (There is a fascinating account, told by Pickett, of his being told in seminary that he would be a minister who would care for the dying in an unusual way! I believe that such prophetic words are often spoken in ways that can prepare us for what it ahead.) Pickett lived alone for many of the years that he shared these death house experiences. To talk out his feelings he made tape recordings. Some of these are now made public in the film. They are very, very moving accounts of what he saw and felt. For anyone who thinks people die painlessly by lethal injection they ought to hear the truth that Pickett reveals. (Pickett witnessed the first lethal injection ever performed in the world.)

But no execution troubled Pickett like that of Carlos De Luna, a young man who Pickett believed was innocent. Do not misunderstand, Pickett makes it clear that men who confessed their crimes to him would later say, as their dying words, "I am innocent." They had so blinded themselves that they could not face reality. De Luna But De Luna was innocent. The story is convincing and the evidence abundant. The film tracks two Chicago Tribune reporters who pursued the De Luna story and proved his innocence. De Luna's two sisters appear on the film. One is a leading advocate for ending the death penalty.

In a moving scene at his dining room table, with his two daughters and one son present, Pickett finally reveals how he came to view capital punishment after his being present at the death of 95 people. When asked what should be done with those who were convicted of capital crimes he says they should get life in solitary confinement, a fate far worse than death, especially in their view. This practice would also allow new evidence to spare their lives if they had been wrongly convicted. (We have a capital crime case in my county that is nationally known. After many years in prison new evidence showed clearly that the man convicted of a little girl's death did not commit the crime. He is now free while the real killer, who admitted the crime many years ago, is now on trial for it.)

So why did this film push me over the edge? The arguments made here are clear and emotionally compelling. Capital punishment does not allow for a change in decision, a change that is often called for in the light of new evidence. Second, it is the kind of end to life that many criminals desire. Third, it does not really prevent murder as many argue. Fourth, most of those put to death are poor, black or Hispanic, and were afforded no powerful defense in a court of law. Most importantly, the death penalty is unjustly administered in America and there is no good reason to believe that we can reform this practice in the foreseeable future. Finally, the appeal to Old Testament arguments do not hold up in the light of the way we unjustly administer the law or in the light of clearer New Testament principles. (This would require a book length article so I am not going to work this one out in a short blog.)

Whether you believe in capital punishment or not see At the Death House Door. You cannot be the same after you watch, I promise. If you have an ounce of compassion, mixed with your sense of the need for real justice, you will be moved and maybe even troubled. It is a powerful film that leaves you thinking long after you have seen it. The film has been nominated for the 2010 American Library video awards. I got it from my public library and would guess many readers could do the same.