Death Angel

"After review of your taped senior sermon, I am convinced that your ministry is destined to focus on the dying; lending comfort to those faced with death and those who are losing loved ones..."
--A written evaluation of seminary student Carroll Pickett in 1956

For hours the young man had paced his cramped quarters, alternately talking in nervous, rapid-fire bursts, then falling into long stretches of silence. Occasionally he would take a small bite from the cheeseburger he'd ordered but, in truth, he really had no appetite. Finally, in an attempt to silence the maddening clock ticking in his mind, he sat on his bunk and focused his attention on the country music that wafted from a small radio sitting across the way.

The man--a convicted murderer counting the hours before midnight, at which time he was scheduled to die by lethal injection--was soon on his feet again, approaching the barrier of steel bars and wire mesh that separated him from his lone companion. Would it be possible, he asked the prison chaplain, to phone in a request?

Such were the favors, the simple acts of kindness, that the Rev. Carroll (Bud) Pickett was there to perform. In short order he had found the number of the radio station, placed a call, and asked that a song be played. Not wanting to ignite some "hey-folks-out-in-radioland-we-got-a-caller-on-the-line-from-death row" DJ jabber, he opted not to explain why. He did, however, indicate the importance of its airing before midnight.

Then the two men, strangers to each other only hours earlier, waited. When the song had not been played at 11:45 p.m., the chaplain phoned the station again, emphasizing the urgency. Finally, just minutes before the prisoner was scheduled to make the 15-foot walk to the room where he would die, the disc jockey announced that the song was coming up next. The chaplain quickly sought out the warden and pleaded that the moving of the inmate into the death chamber be postponed for just three minutes.

The convicted murderer's death, then, was briefly delayed while he sat in the 5-by-9 cell, eyes closed, slowly swaying to the gentle rhythm of the Willie Nelson song he'd wanted to hear. In the chill and stillness of the moment, "Help Me Make It Through The Night" called out like an unheard prayer.

For 15 years it was Pickett's job to help strangers--men with evil histories of unspeakable violence and lost hope--through the final hours of their lives. He would talk with them, sing with them, and grant their wishes, however trivial, if within reason. They would pray together and read from the Bible. Often they would speak of the grim circumstances that led to their finally meeting.

They were men convicted of capital crimes, waiting to receive lethal injections ordered by the State of Texas. He was the prison chaplain, there to serve as their final confidant, the last friendly face they would ever see.

On one occasion, an inmate's tearful description of the unspeakably torturous crime he had committed was so graphic that a nearby prison guard became sick to his stomach. On another, a condemned man spread rumors to death-row inmates that the minister had conducted quick funeral services for executed prisoners without families or loved ones, then watched, laughing, as their bodies were unceremoniously tossed into a creek that runs behind the prison. And that he had once loudly cursed the legal authorities who had seen fit to stay an execution at the last minute. Anti-death penalty cause celebre Gary Graham, the murderer-robber who had earlier seen his sentence stayed before being executed, spat in his face.

Yet Pickett stood his ground, listening, not judging; befriending, not berating.

Sometimes those to whom he was assigned would sit and stare blankly--frozen statues saying nothing, drawing whatever comfort comes from the physical presence of another human being in the slow-ticking last minutes of their death watch. Others would pace nervously, talking constantly.

"No one," the 66-year-old clergyman says as he reflects on his unique career, "regardless of what he might have done in his life, should die alone."

Although he could never tell them, the gentle, soft-spoken man with strong feelings about the Presbyterian doctrines he has followed and preached throughout his adult life, never embraced the legal process of which he was a part. Yet as the death-house chaplain for the Texas Department of Corrections (now called the Texas Department of Criminal Justice), the minister assigned to accompany murderers and rapists whose time for execution had come, Pickett repeatedly participated in the procedure--a process in which he, in fact, had played a key role designing. A manual Pickett wrote, The Team Approach to Execution in the State of Texas, would eventually provide the guidelines for prisons throughout the nation.