Longform

Death Angel

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Pickett ponders that long-ago night which, he says, offers a strong argument that there is never real solace to be found in the wake of unspeakable evil. "It has been 26 years since I buried Drew Standley's mother," he says, "and there is still no closure. For her or for Cuevas' family."

One of the traditions attached to the administration of the death sentence that troubled him most, Pickett says, was that of the family members' being allowed to witness the execution. "I've always felt it would be easier on everyone if they could find it in themselves not to be there and watch.

"I would meet with them beforehand and do the best I could to explain what they would see, but it rarely prepared them. There is a great difference in watching an elderly loved one die of cancer and seeing a healthy man who, for lack of a better term, is not of dying age, being put to death. Seeing someone you care for strapped down, scared, totally helpless, knowing he is about to be killed, is a traumatic experience beyond almost any other I can imagine."

From his vantage point in the death chamber, Pickett saw witnesses faint, and he watched as others became hysterical and violently ill. "I don't like to think of the number of times I've been told by a family member afterward that I hadn't prepared them for what they actually experienced," he says. "The truth of the matter is, no matter how hard you try, there is just no way to do it."

Taking Its Toll

In keeping with his duties, however, Pickett never voiced his personal feelings on the matter; never discouraged any visit by those who wished to be on hand in the final moments. For the man who had spent his boyhood in a rural community on the outskirts of Victoria, dreaming of the day that he would become an algebra teacher and tennis coach, the minister had spent his time as a prison chaplain walking a fine line. The Presbyterian church in 1977 had taken a firm position against capital punishment yet had given him permission to conduct what it classified as "special ministry." The role he had agreed to play never got easier.

Widowed at the time he had begun serving as companion and minister to inmates facing their death, he would return home to long nights of angst and sleeplessness after each execution. "The things I'd talked with these men about," he says, "was privileged, so I couldn't speak to anyone about what they had said. But I had to get it out of my system somehow." Thus he begun a routine of speaking his thoughts into a tape recorder.

Filed, shared with no one, Pickett has an oral history of the career many of his friends said was certain to drive him crazy.

Although he has never played the tapes, he remembers. One night he sat and listened as a rapist-murderer told of staking his victim to an ant bed, leaving the horrified young woman to endure a death beyond imagination. The Amarillo man who graphically described how he had raped an elderly nun. The father who had poisoned Halloween candy to cause the death of his own son. The man who had killed as many people while in prison as he had while a member of society. Another who had admitted the abuse of more than 200 children. A young man, frustrated with the disappointments of his life, who had methodically murdered his entire family. They came to him bearing distressing epithets like "The Good Samaritan Killer," "The Candy Man," "The Soldier of Fortune Murderer." It became a nightmarish litany.

It was these such tales that many friends and fellow ministers cited as they assured him that he would not last at the job. "I was told that after going through the procedure a couple of times, I'd be absolutely nuts," he says. On two occasions, in fact, when circumstances had made it impossible for him to attend scheduled executions, the preachers who had substituted for him vowed they would never do it again.

In time, he admits, he would seek counsel of his own. "On a couple of occasions," he admits, "I had a difficult time putting things out of my mind and went to a fellow minister for help." One such visit, he remembers, followed the execution of a terrified 24-year-old killer to whom he had carefully described the death house routine. "As I did with everyone, I had assured him that once the drugs were administered it would be only seven to 12 seconds before he died.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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