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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
March 10th, 2008

at-the-death-house-door-2.jpgCarroll Pickett was a minister in Huntsville, TX–a place best known for its many prisons and high number of executions–when two of his parishioners were taken hostage in an infamous prison riot in 1974. He was called in to try to broker peace, but his friends were eventually killed, and Pickett vowed to never return to that prison.

But years later, the prison asked him to become the chaplain, and he thought he could do some valuable work for the people there. Indeed he did, until suddenly his job description changed, and he was asked to be the minister presiding over executions. He would spend all day with the condemned, getting to know them, listening to their fears, concerns and confessions, and aiding any of their last wishes. Pickett agreed in principal with the death penalty, but he certainly had trepidation about the burden of task.

Over 15 years, he was at 95 executions, each a fascinating story. And over those years, Pickett’s opinion of the death penalty changed completely.

At the Death House Door,” directed by Steve James and Peter Glibert, is a gripping, fascinating, powerful film about Pickett, about a wrongly-executed man named Carlos De Luna and his family, and about the tragic moral mistake that is the death penalty. Pickett’s character unfolds with a stately grace. Being a old-fashioned Texan, he’s reluctant to reveal his emotions, a trait which only makes them burn with more ferocity as you see them shine through. In the Q & A, he was asked why it took him so long to come to the conclusions he did, he said that he’s “just hard-headed.” But in the film, you see an amazing evolution of a man’s feelings and ideology, a rare and stunning transformation to see in a documentary, or really in life in general (aren’t we all pretty stubborn in our beliefs?)

After every execution, Pickett recorded an audio diary of what happened and what he was thinking and feeling. Until the documentary, not even his family knew these tapes existed, and watching Picket re-listening to them in the film is one of the most harrowing looks into man’s soul that I’ve ever seen.

at-the-death-house-door-1.jpgFinally, the execution of Hector De Luna, a man who Pickett suspected was innocent, is enough to set the ball in motion for Pickett to leave the prison and become an anti-death penalty activist. Emotionally, Pickett was verging on destruction. But he harnesses these core moral disturbances and uses them (and an array of factual evidence) to fight against the death penalty. He actively campaigns now, arguing that not only is the death penalty cruel and painful, not only are there irremediable mistakes made, not is the penalty ineffective as a criminal deterrent (there are hundreds more people on death row now than there were when it was reinstated 30 years ago), but it’s a fundamentally immoral act, that’s “not Christian, it’s not American, and it’s not Texan,” a moral blight on our society which makes us weaker as a people.

In the Q & A, someone wondered if they film might be more effective if it also focused on some of the victims, and the filmmakers’ rightly pointed out that in many ways this is a film about victims. It’s one side of the death penalty story, surely, but one that crucially implicates all Americans in continuing to allow this injustice.

“I’m angry,” says Rose De Luna, the sister of the wrongly-executed Hector De Luna. “Stay that way,” Pickett says.

We all need to get angry.

If you don’t get a chance to see it at SXSW, the film will be on IFC in May, and perhaps at Rooftop some time soon. I would love the honor to show this to people, and sure wish that a few of them might be on the Supreme Court.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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