The Rev. Carroll Pickett holds the world record for witnessing the most state executions as a chaplain. He saw 95 men die by lethal injection during his career as the death house chaplain.
In the years since he left the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Pickett has written a book and starred in an award-winning documentary that chronicled his work at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. He sat down with The Texas Tribune recently to talk about how he "seduced the emotions" of the condemned, why his views about the death penalty changed and how he now copes with all the death he has witnessed.
An edited video of the interview and a transcript are below.
TT: When did you start working in the death house?
Pickett: Death house is at the Walls Unit, and that’s where I was chaplain. The death house is used only for executions. And I was chaplain for 2,200 inmates on the unit and also when executions were reinstated in 1982, after they had been declared unconstitutional in ’64, I was assigned death house chaplain.
TT: What were your duties as death house chaplain?
Pickett: Well the warden’s assignment — and he and I got along really well — his main concern was to seduce his emotions so he won’t fight. It was to be honest with him, to talk to him. I would help them with their last letters, to write letters. If they wanted to make telephone calls, the warden gave me permission to go — we had to go through the secretary’s office to make telephone calls. And mainly it was just to keep them calm, to give them juice or drinks or whatever it was they want. If they wanted to talk about the Bible, we’d talk about the Bible. If they wanted to talk about the Quran, I had a friend up in Dallas who gave me the very most expensive Qurans, a whole case of them, to be used only in the death house. Of course, I only used three. Sometimes they just want to sing. I had one that sang all day long. And I did a bunch of little things that made them happy. For instance, if a guy wanted a Dr Pepper, Dr Peppers aren’t available in the death house but, you know, I’d go next door to my house and bring them one. Little things that to them were important.
TT: What changed your mind about the death penalty?
Pickett: The main reason I was in favor of the death penalty was because my grandfather was murdered. And my father never talked about it. I found out through one of his cousins. My father was very strongly in favor of punishment, punishment, punishment, hard punishment. So I live with that. Then I began to see that these fellows, first of all they were not the same people who committed the crime, if they committed the crime. You know, they change. We called it restorative justice. Everybody can change. And then I got to see how much it costs. You know, the third guy that was executed, it cost that county $6 million. And then there were many of them — way too many — who I knew were innocent, who did not commit the crime. It is cruel and unusual punishment. It is not always painless. We have botched executions.
TT: What changes are needed in death penalty policy?
Pickett: Law enforcement agencies have to be a lot more careful. Policies and programs like DNA and blood work — [we need to] do this quicker and not wait 20 years like Anthony Graves and some of these other people. If we are going to continue killing people in the name of the state, let’s get them right.
TT: Why should lawmakers keep prison chaplains in the state budget?
Pickett: On our unit, our wardens believed when everything is going smooth in the chapel, the fights and the problems go down. If they didn’t believe in anything, and they came to believe in something — something greater than they were — that would change their life. And many, many lives were changed. I have 78 men that became Christians while I was there who are ministers in different churches throughout the United States.
TT: How do you cope with all the death you've seen over the years?
Pickett: I feel like my ministry today is to work with organizations and with people and to go places to explain to people exactly what it’s like. That last day is painful. They are sitting there in Cell One looking at that big, black iron door knowing that at midnight or 6 o’clock they are going in there and they are not coming out.