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Death Angel

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"But that night, as I touched his ankle, feeling his pulse, I realized that it had taken longer than usual. When 12 seconds passed and his heart was still beating I felt a tremendous sense that I'd let him down. It weighed on me that he'd gone to his death feeling that I'd lied to him. It took me a long time to shake that. To this day I can see those big brown eyes looking up at me."

Final Meals, Final Words

The death house procedure, still being exercised, was suggested by the Rev. Pickett almost two decades ago and has since been passed on to prisons in 38 states. It was essential, he had insisted from the start, that the chaplain gain the confidence of the inmate being brought to the death house, thus he would have to be provided with wide latitude in decision-making. In essence, in the final hours before the execution, the chaplain was in control from the moment the inmate was delivered, strip-searched, and placed in the holding cell, until the time the guards arrived to escort him down the narrow hallway and into the sterile cinder-block room where death would be administered.

Pickett, who made it a rule never to visit inmates on death row, was always waiting at the door of the death house cell when they arrived. Though he had read the convict's file to learn personal information, he made it a point never to dwell on details of the crime or crimes that had been committed. "The person would not have been there," he says, "had he not done something terrible." That was enough for Pickett to know.

"My purpose was to help him through it in any way I could; to keep him as calm as possible while he waited to die." The clergyman is obviously proud of the fact that never, during his tenure, did a prisoner physically attack him or the two guards assigned to stand silently at the far end of the death house hallway.

Sitting in a chair outside the cell, Pickett would detail the ensuing sequence of events and ask whom the prisoner might like to have visit him. If no family members were present, long-distance phone calls (restricted to the continental United States), routed through the warden's office, were permitted. Many asked for prayers or that the chaplain read scriptures from the Bible. A few showed no interest.

He would arrange the sequence of the emotional visits with wives and parents, brothers and sisters. Then, as the time for the execution neared, he would help the prisoner write letters, which he would promise to personally mail, and order his final meal. "There's a myth that they can order anything, but the truth is they are allowed only what the prison kitchen has available. And while most do ask for a rather lavish meal, most only pick at it once it arrives."

The chaplain, in fact, would routinely warn them that the fatal drugs that would soon be pumped into their bloodstreams seemed to work more slowly on full stomachs.

Andy Barefoot, convicted of the murder of a sheriff's deputy in Killeen, had asked only for a bowl of sand and a glass of vinegar. "I asked him why," recalls Pickett, "and he said 'because that's what Jesus had. It's in the Bible.' The meal was denied. He settled for my reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for three hours."

And if an inmate planned to make a final statement from the death chamber, Pickett would encourage that he rehearse it. "I tried to explain that whatever they had to say were the words the world would remember them by, so they had to give it some thought." Also, it was in those final hours that the condemned spoke most candidly, talking of their crimes, whatever degree of remorse they felt, their questions of faith and the hereafter, or, simply, their anger at "the system" that they felt had treated them unfairly.

"While it is impossible not to be scared," Pickett says, "there is a peaceful atmosphere in the solitude of the last cell they'll be placed into. On death row there is a loud and vulgar noise that is constant. In the death house there is a quiet they have not experienced in years. There, they know, no one is going to harass them or invade their last few hours of privacy. I've actually seen relief on the face of many when they finally arrived there. In many instances, I've had inmates tell me that the few hours spent in the death house cell was the first time they had been treated as a person since coming to prison."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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