He assumed his role at a time when death sentences were performed at one minute past midnight instead of 6 in the afternoon, before the national outcry against the death penalty had grown into today's boiling social and political issue; before haunting questions about the possibility that innocent people were being put to death filled the front pages; before a Huntsville execution became a routine, business-as-usual matter. Yet even then it troubled Pickett, conflicted with his life-long spiritual convictions. "My interpretation of the scripture 'Thou shall not kill,'" he suggests, "has always applied to all."
Cigars, Witches, Confessions
"To me," he says, "execution has never been anything more than an exercise in revenge. By definition, it is premeditated murder. There is no proof that the death penalty has served as a deterrent to crime, no figures that indicate that it is really that much more cost-effective. And it really offers no closure for the victims' loved ones. All it does is create another set of victims."
Yet he was there, standing silently at the foot of the gurney, a hand gently touching the condemned man's ankle, when the state of Texas reinstituted capital punishment in 1982, putting Fort Worth murderer Charley Brooks to death by lethal injection. And even then his work was not done. It was Pickett's responsibility to remain with the body until employees of a local mortuary arrived to retrieve it. He then drove to a nearby motel to meet with Brooks' family.
He would experience the routine 95 times before his retirement in 1995.
"My responsibility," he says, "was always to make the prisoner as comfortable as possible in those last hours, to answer whatever questions he had about the procedure he was facing, to arrange last visits and phone calls. I became his access to the outside world in those final hours."
If the inmate wanted a newspaper or magazine, Pickett went in search of it. He helped order the last meal, write letters, write wills, listened as the man on the other side of the bars rehearsed whatever final statement he planned to make from the death chamber. If the inmate had a favorite scripture, Pickett read it. When James David Autry became upset over televised news reports that he was "nervous" about his impending death, Pickett sought reporters to assure them the inmate was, in fact, calmly awaiting his fate. Though a long-standing "no smoking" rule existed in the death house, Pickett often ignored it, providing an occasional cigarette. "I had this one guy tell me, 'I know I can't smoke it, but I'd like to die with a cigar in my pocket,'" Pickett remembers. "I went over to a drug store, bought him a cigar, and as we were getting ready to make the walk into the death chamber, I slipped it into his shirt pocket. It seemed like a small thing to do if it somehow made him feel better."
When an inmate confided that he was a member of the Church of Wicca and wished to have an ordained witch give him last rites, the Rev. Pickett, who performed his role in a nondenominational capacity, got on the phone. "I finally found a woman living in Pearland [near Houston] and explained the situation. She drove to Huntsville in a driving rain and did a wonderful job."
During those final hours after all appeals had been exhausted, Pickett says, often a stark degree of honesty would haunt him for days afterward. Details of murders committed, confessions to additional crimes for which they had never been convicted, tales of troubled lives that set their course to death row. "They were talking from somewhere deep inside, from years of carrying around the knowledge of crime and sin and immorality. They are heavy burdens most of us can't begin to imagine."
The Details of Death
Hearing those burdens described, performing the all-but-impossible task of offering comfort, then watching men die was not a job Pickett sought. Until 1974, in fact, he had never been inside the prison for which the city in which he lives was universally known.
It was during one of the most infamous outbreaks of violence in Texas penal history that then-prison director W.J. Estelle, a member of Pickett's congregation, approached him with the request that he come to the downtown Walls Unit. Estelle asked that he counsel family members of the 16 hostages taken during the 11-day siege and attempted breakout by prisoners Fred Gomez Carrasco, Ignacio Cuevas, and Rudolfo Dominguez.
Before the standoff had ended, two prison librarians--Elizabeth Beseda and Julia Standley, both members of Pickett's church--had been killed. In fact, Pickett had been helping Standley plan for her daughter's wedding only days before she had been taken hostage. Ultimately, responsibility would fall to the minister to inform both families of the deaths that had occurred.