As "the death chaplain" at Huntsville prison, Reverend Carroll Pickett has counseled 95 prisoners, one at a time, on the day the state has scheduled to end their life. Death by lethal injection, the chaplain found, is not a quiet exit. It's torturous. It's not fool-proof. And there's no guarantee that everyone put to death is guilty.
"That cruel and unusual punishment starts the minute they walk in the death house ... It's not painless. It is not painless," Pickett said last night at SMU, where was joined for a panel discussion by death row exonerees Anthony Graves and Clarence Brandley. (Brandley also spoke at an SMU death row exoneree panel last year).
"There are botched executions. I've been there. I saw it," Pickett said.
He supported capital punishment when he started his job in 1982, but death after tortuous death wore away at him. "This one young man, they tried and they tried and they tried, and they couldn't find a place to put a needle in that would flow properly," he said.
The man had abused drugs enough to know how to effectively tap into his veins. He was permitted to sit up and demonstrate the most effective way to put him to death. His instructions worked, the lethal liquids flowed, and his life drained. After 45 minutes of being stuck with needles, "he just wanted the pain over," Pickett said.
Graves was sentenced to lay on the same gurney for a 1992 murder. The original suspect, who has since been put to death for the brutal small-town Texas homicide, told police that Graves was also involved. After awaiting trial for two and a half years, Graves went to trial in front of a jury of 11 white people and one black man. The black foreman of the jury tearfully handed the judge the verdict: guilty. Like his accuser, Graves was sentenced to death.
He later learned that prosecutors had withheld the man's admission that he lied, and that the prosecution said they would charge the man's wife if he did not implicate Graves. "We have a failed and broken system today," Graves said, stressing a lack in accountability.
"It changed my whole world. It changed the world of my family," Graves said. "I was the next dead man walking for a crime I did not commit."
"All that stuff that's going on in Guantanamo Bay, that's peanuts compared to what's going on in your backyard," Graves said. "I was a good father, but the state of Texas took that from me in your name."
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In 2010, after 18 years in prison, police came to Graves's cell and walked him down the hall to meet his attorney. The charges against him had been dropped, she told him. That day, he walked out of prison unshackled and in civilian clothes. He called his mother from the parking lot.
"Mom, what are you cooking?" he asked, as he always had from prison. This time, instead of imagining the food, he told her, "Your son is coming home."
Across the United States, 3,200 people are currently on death row; Texas has put the most people to death "out of any jurisdiction anywhere in the world," said Dr. Rick Halperin, SMU human rights program director.
"The death penalty is not an act; the death penalty is a process ... of psychological torture that either can conclude in an execution or can conclude in a release," Halperin said. He added that the death certificates filled out when prisoners pass away have several options under "Cause of Death," and that a specific box is checked when a prisoner is purposefully put to death: homicide.