Death Angel

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"Once that was over," he says, "I swore I would never set foot inside a prison again." For six years, he kept that vow. That is, until the spring of 1980 when Estelle approached him again, this time about joining the prison's staff of chaplains. Pickett's primary responsibility, he was told, would be to minister to terminally ill patients in the prison hospital and psychiatric ward and occasionally conduct funerals for those without families or anyone to claim their bodies.

In 1982, Pickett's job description changed drastically. The warden called a staff meeting to announce that executions would soon be resumed. Pickett vividly remembers that meeting. "Nobody in the room had any idea what it was going to be like, even what the procedure was. We all went down to the old death row to see what it looked like. The thing that first struck me was the fact that there were only eight cells. When it had been designed, there was no thought that there would ever be more than eight men on death row at any given time."

When the staff had visited what would come to be known as the "death house," the population of death row had grown to 100. More than 400 are residing at the nearby Terrell Unit, where all those awaiting execution are housed.

The prison's infamous "Old Sparky," the electric chair used in bygone executions, was stored in a room at the end of the narrow building, replaced by a gurney on which the condemned inmate would take his final breath after three separate chemicals--one a general anesthetic, one that halts the function of the respiratory muscles, and a third that stops the heart--were injected into his bloodstream.

"Knowing that we would all soon be involved in an execution," he says, "was nerve-racking. Sitting around planning how to put someone to death was an unsettling exercise. And even after we'd settled on all the details--when the prisoner would be brought to the death house, what he would be allowed to do in the final hours, how we'd get him from the cell to the death chamber, and how the actual execution would be carried out--none of us were really comfortable. We practiced over and over, using a guard acting the part of the inmate. Without telling others involved, we'd even instruct him to put up a fight so it could be determined how to deal with it. And even at that none of us had any idea how it would go."

To everyone's relief, that first execution had gone smoothly. "One of the things I asked the warden to tell Charley Brooks as we waited that day was that none of us had ever done this before," Pickett recalls. "It just seemed that he deserved to know that."

In time, Pickett would be able to provide every minute detail to those prisoners who wished to know about the execution procedure they were facing. With the exception of rare, minor problems--like the time it took more than a half hour to locate a vein that hadn't collapsed from a prisoner's lifetime of drug abuse, or when the intravenous needle momentarily slipped from the prisoner's arm as the fatal drugs were being administered--the executions, all modeled after the one in '82, have been conducted without malfunction.

Nevertheless, Pickett has his reservations about the dark exercise and what it has accomplished.

Eighteen years after presiding at the funeral services of church members Beseda and Standley, the minister found himself face-to-face with Ignacio Cuevas, who was finally scheduled to be executed for their murders during the '74 standoff.

"It was an awkward situation," he remembers, "since my responsibilities were to families of the victims as well as those of the person being put to death." Although relatives of the two murdered women were aware of Pickett's long-ago involvement in the siege and its aftermath, neither Cuevas nor members of his family were ever told. "I simply felt it would be more difficult for them to accept me and what I was attempting to do for them if they'd been aware I'd had a personal relationship with those Cuevas had been convicted of murdering."

In those final hours before he was executed, Cuevas had admitted to the chaplain that Ignacio Cuevas was not even his real name. Instead, it was the name he had taken from a man he'd killed years earlier.

"One of the things I had to do," Pickett recalls, "was find out what the family wanted to do with the body after the execution. Cuevas' son had come from Pecos and told me he had already built a casket and dug a grave for his father. He said he'd bought a new pickup truck to take his daddy home in."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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