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graveyard awash in crosses
Interview with Reverend Carroll Pickett
In his 16 years as chaplain for the death house in Texas, Rev. Pickett accompanied over 90 men into the execution chamber.What are the most frequently asked questions in those last hours?

'Am I going to see the victim's family?' And I was always able to say, No. They are not permitted to be here.

Was that a relief or a disappointment?

That was a great relief for the men. In my opinion, that was one of the biggest fears that they had. They just didn't want to see the [victim's] family.

They may begin to allow the families of victims in now. Would you be opposed to that?

From listening to the men that I've been with, for their sake it's going to be a problem. If I just look at it strictly from their viewpoint. If they see their five family over here and the other five over here, I think it would make a lot of difference, and it's going to take a lot of preparation to talk to the man. Because one of the things that we do during this process is explaining everything, I ask him what his final statement is going to be. Not that I want to word his statement for him. Not that I want to teach him what to say or tell him what to say, but in order to know in advance if he knows what he is going to say so we won't stop his message.

Lots of times they just want me to help word it. The last two hours of every one of them...they just want to talk about things that may have been sitting there on their hearts and their spirits and their souls for a long, long time.What they want to get across is a message and they're going to have two or three minutes. They know they can't read it. Some of them asked me, Would you read it for me? No. I can't do that. Some of them ask me, you know, If I stumble will you go ahead and since you know what I'm going to say will you finish it for me? I couldn't do that because those would not be his last words. They'd be my last words. That's one of the things that we prepare. We do discuss his final statement and they will tell me what it is. And most the time they stick with it real close.

Then midnight comes. What happens? Or now, it's been changed to 6:00 in the evening.

Some of them want to watch a clock. Most of them don't want to watch a clock. They want me to tell them what time it is, and if they don't want to know, then I don't tell them. And it seemed to work easier because then they don't become clock-watchers. They write their letters and so forth. Come 12:00, I'll tell them, 'it is 12:00.' And when the warden steps through I'll say, 'it is time to go.' I step back, the doors are unlocked, the two officers who have been there, along with three more who are coming in serve as sort of an escort. And there is three on one side and two on the other. And I walk into the execution chamber. He follows me. I've already explained to him where to go and how to sit, which direction, and where to place his feet and then the officers help out quite a bit...

There is something of a ceremony to it all, isn't there?

I think there is a ritual. There are certain things that the law prescribes. There are certain things that have to be done to make it proper and there are all those general things that change like who we get to visit him and who we get to talk to. Also, each one is different. Some of them have been willing to talk, talk, talk and some of them just want to remain totally silent. Some of them want to talk about different things, you know, from family to history. Some of them want to spend a lot of time disputing the news accounts, what's in the paper. Sometimes when we used to have a radio down there it was on. But everyone of them is different. Everyone has certain elements that nobody else has done.

Do you think there have been some you have watched die who were strictly innocent?

I never felt that. The last two hours of every one of them they are...I would say [are] more than honest. And they want to talk about things that a lot of people don't know and a lot of people are going to never know, because I'm not going to tell...they just want to talk about things that may have been sitting there on their hearts and their spirits and their souls for a long, long time.

Confessions?

Many.

Of the crimes and other things.

Yes.

And do they seem to feel better after doing this?

Yes. I have seen some of them who, after a confession -I'm going to use your term confession; I just call it being reality at the last minute - they would lie down and go to sleep at 11:30. Just take a brief nap. It's just like they got some weight that they've been carrying around. They can just lie down on that...in Cell 1 and just take a nap. There are two or three of them I have had to wake up at five minutes to 12.

They take a nap with a half hour to live?

Very few of them but there has been some.

Are there some who are inconsolable for whom you've not been able to offer any help?

There have been a couple. One of them just did not talk to anybody. Nobody. There have been a couple of them who came in and said they didn't want to talk, but after a couple hours I will just tell them, Okay, if that's your choice, I will be available. I will not leave the unit, or I can go down to Cell 7 and be out of the way. But basically... of the 95 that I have been with all the way, there has been only one who refused to talk at all.

Do you get to like some enough that it really hurts you to see him die?

Some of the men have changed from what they used to be. Those who came in particularly as 17 or 18 year-olds and stay a long, long time. You know you can change. Everybody changes at 16 years or 14 years or 8 years. Some of them change tremendously in two years. There are some of them that I have really found to be very interesting, friendly, and this is very hypothetical, yet sometimes I felt like if we could have been friends had they been in another situation at another time.

Which is one of the main arguments against the death penalty-- that you are killing a different person than the one who committed the murders. When I talked to you, you weren't able or willing to say how you feel about the death penalty because you work for the system. Can you now?

I don't think that I can. Maybe it's because I don't really know. I can sit back now and look at 13 years of being in there, almost 16 in the chaplaincy, and 13 years of doing it being the chaplain to the death house, not death row. And as I look at the world, I can see that this process is not cutting down on what's going on out in the free world. That is one of the arguments if it's a deterrent to crime in the world. I mean it's just a fact. Anybody can tell you that. It's not working. Getting it may be to that person. I've preferred to just leave that alone. That's a question that I couldn't answer then and I can't answer it now. Then...if I said I was opposed to it, they'd fire me. You couldn't work for the system...if I said I was in favor of it, then some of the inmates wouldn't want to talk.

You purposely didn't get to know these men until the last few hours. Is that correct?

That's right. That was a decision made by director Mr. Stell back in the early 80s, and he set up the procedure that he wanted a chaplain to deal with them out there... and to keep it separate. I didn't like the term death chaplain but that's the way he put it.

Over the last years, I've talked to more than 30 states. They've come here with us or learned or taught, and I've been to some other states. And I recommend that...where a man is a chaplain to an individual for four, five, six years. They get involved with his family and they get over his life and it's difficult for them. I know in some states they have not been able to walk the last mile.

The minister hasn't?

Right. And I have talked to the chaplain and I told the warden about that, and I really think that Mr. Stell was right. They know that we start fresh in here. I don't go back and read these guys transcripts. Whatever they want to tell me, you know, whereas the fellow out there will know his whole life history. They'll know whether he had been a good convict or bad convict. Whether he's attended church or mass or the Islamic services. I can start clean, and I think that's the best way.

I'm trying to get a sense of the kind of struggle this may have been for you, either with each execution or continually. Are those fair words to use for the kind of career you had for 16 years?

The struggle goes on. There were many times I did not go to sleep. There were many times when I felt like, not that we did anything wrong, but maybe we could have done something better, particularly, you know, one young kid in his 20s. You know that was difficult because I had kids that were older than 20. And that's been several years ago, but that was something that it took several, several days to even come to grips with what had taken place. And nothing bad took place. It's just thatI can see the look on his face, and this event took place eight years ago. There...with each one of them I can go back and pick out a name and there's something unique about it.

... I was speaking to a group at high school in Marion, Ohio earlier this year. And one of the young kids asked the question, 'When are you going to snap?' And I have had that in my mind for a long time. I think it's always going to be there.

Have you come close?

There have been times when I've almost decided I didn't want to do it anymore.

You set out to do it for one year and you did it for 16 years. What kept you going?

I didn't set out to do executions. I set out to do a chaplaincy. At the time, it was never was in my job description. I think the one thing that kept me going was not only my faith but this was to me was a great important part of ministry. I made a commitment to a man in my first church. A man by the name of Dan Miller, who had no family, down in a little town of Senton, Texas, and he asked me, Would you stay with me while I die? He was dying of cancer, and I made a promise to him that if it's within my power to help you when you die, I ll be there. I was 23 at the time. Just barely out of seminary.

And I kept that promise, or tried to in all of my three pastorates that I've had since him. Then also there in prison, and we had him in the hospital. It was the same way. So it is part of my ministry to be with the person who dies who can't have family there. I've always felt like that the hardest thing to do would be have to die alone. My premise over all the years is not that a man should die alone. If I can be with him for six hours, eight hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, and help him die not alone then that's what kept me going.

Weren't there times some evenings--seeing this man scared out of his wits, perhaps talking to members of his family who are grief stricken--when you want to say, 'Let him live. Let's not go through with it.'

I could never say that. The law was in control. The law of the state of Texas, and that was the thing that was told us at the very beginning. This is going to happen whether you are here or not, and I would prefer to stay with him and try to help him and listen to him. And if he needed a Dr. Pepper, get him a Dr. Pepper. If he needed a particular song, I'd find him that song. If he wanted to sing, we'd sing, and I don't sing well. I knew I never had the power to stop it.

Can you think of anything that people miss on this issue of capital punishment?

It's been hashed and rehashed and spoken and studied so much. Today the biggest problem about the whole procedure is the length of time they must wait, between the time they get convicted and the time they carry it out. That to me will always be a problem. They want you to have to stay years and years and years...that's not living. That's really not living.

That's what some of them say. That the punishment is not the execution, but the waiting.

Oh, so many of them! When they get here, they're relieved. It's like getting it over with. You've been living for a decade and a half knowing that you can't go home. You've got a 5 x 9. And for people of faith who believe in a afterlife, this is a freedom. It's the only freedom these people are going to get. It just takes so long and to me...that's the punishment part. Because everybody's going to die one way or another. But to have to live your last 15 years in a 5 x 9, that's worse, and a lot harder in my opinion.



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