Death Angel

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Finally, 15 minutes before the scheduled time for the execution, Pickett would say "It's time to go," and guards would enter the cell to escort the prisoner through the hallway and into the powder blue-walled death chamber. Pickett walked at the prisoner's side, then stood silently at the foot of the gurney as the inmate was strapped in place.

When all was set, after the prisoner's final words had been voiced into a microphone extended above the gurney--sometimes in a whisper, sometimes as if boomed from a pulpit--the warden would give the signal (removal of his glasses), and the lethal injections began. In seconds, it would be over.

But not for Pickett. After remaining with the body until the funeral home ambulance had come, he would visit distraught family members, sometimes late into the night. And then his reflective vigil would often last until daybreak.

Sterilized Killings

Adhering to the procedure wasn't always easy. While his focus in those final hours was to keep the inmate as calm as possible, often those in law enforcement would demand one final chance at obtaining a confession or details of the crime for which the prisoner had been convicted. One sheriff had even suggested that Pickett disregard the confidentiality vow he'd taken as a minister and wear a wire so that any admission to other crimes of which a particular inmate was suspected might be recorded. Ultimately, Pickett had gone to the warden with a request that then-Texas attorney general Jim Maddox be kept away from the death house on execution day. "He always wanted to talk with the prisoner, asking for details of the crime," Pickett recalls. Maddox, he says, only made an already bad situation worse with his demanding demeanor and monopoly of the condemned man's final hours.

"One of the most important parts of my job," Pickett recalls, "became keeping people out of the prisoner's cell until a quarter of 12 when the guards came for him."

Most of those who made the short trip to the death house already knew they would soon meet Pickett. Inmates whose executions had been stayed at the last minute had returned to describe the events and the demeanor of the chaplain to fellow death row inmates. "For that reason--knowing that word of anything I said and did was going to get back to death row--I made it an iron-clad rule never to promise anything I couldn't deliver."

Despite such caution, troubling stories made their way back to death row. There was the time, Pickett recalls, when a condemned prisoner balked at being strapped to the death chamber gurney. The inmate sat up and began fighting the guards who were trying to strap him down, at which point the chaplain reached over and gently placed a hand on his chest, trying to calm him. As the man lay back, terrified, he asked the chaplain to maintain physical contact. And so he did, keeping his hand on the man's chest throughout the procedure.

The following day, a newspaper headline read, "Chaplain Holds Inmate Down While He Dies." Word of this spread quickly along death row. What went unmentioned was that the chaplain involved was not Carroll Pickett but a fellow minister substituting for him.

"While I was asked by almost every prisoner I met, I never shared my thoughts on the death penalty. My response was always that how I felt had nothing to do with why I was there or what was about to happen.

"My feeling about capital punishment had absolutely nothing to do with the person I was there to help. I'd tell them that I wasn't the judge or jury; that I didn't make the law. Nor was I there to enforce the law. That was not my business. I wanted them to know that it made no difference how I felt about capital punishment or the court system or death by lethal injection because I had absolutely no control over those things."

And so, none of the 95 men the chaplain walked to their deaths ever knew that he embraced the definition of their fate fashioned by Nightline host Ted Koppel. "He came down and did one of his shows on an execution," Pickett remembers, "and at some point referred to what we were doing as 'sterilized killing.' It's the best description I've ever heard."

Yet for years he made the best of a situation with which he spiritually struggled. "I came away from the experience," he admits, "with far more questions than answers."

The executions of men whose crimes had been committed years earlier when they were only teenagers, he admits, troubled him most. "I would find myself thinking back to my own teenage years and saying to myself, 'There but for the grace of God...' I've talked with men who were as gentle as anyone I've ever met, people who knew they had done a terrible wrong and were genuinely remorseful, people I'd have been comfortable with if they visited in my home. Yet for one terrible mistake..." With that his voice trails. The law as written, he concedes, offers no possibility of redemption for such men, no differentiation between them and the hardened career criminal.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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