Rev. Carroll Pickett (MDiv'57) speaks against death penalty

The Rev. Carroll Pickett (MDiv’57) is conflicted by the 15 years he served as a chaplain on Texas’ death row. Now retired and free to speak out, Pickett hosts informational discussions about the death penalty, in which he shares candidly about the cruelty and injustice he witnessed in the system. On the invitation of the student group Corpus Christi and junior John Harrison, Pickett returned to Austin Seminary to lead such a discussion in February.

He admits that he was a traditional Texas conservative and supported the death penalty early on in his career, but as he worked in the system his opinion changed. In his memoir, Within These Walls (St. Martin’s Press 2002), he shares some of the reasons of his changed outlook. He writes in response to an inmates’ question, “Why you quitting, Chaplain?”

Pickett said, “I couldn’t explain that it was because men like him were being put to death. I couldn’t rant against a system that would keep him locked up and wanted to hurry him through his final hours. I couldn’t tell him that I’d spent too much time in this cramped, ugly place, listening to frightened men whose lives began to slip away even before they made the walk to the gurney. I couldn’t tell him that I was tired of it, saddened and angered by it; that I was bone weary of going through what he and I would be dealing with in only a matter of hours.”

During the brief time he had with students and guests at the luncheon, Pickett attacked some common myths about the death penalty. For example, some argue that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. He insists it is not, as evidenced by the lists of Texas death row inmates, which have grown exponentially from when he started in 1982.

Another argument is that execution is a just punishment for taking another’s life. The problem, he states, is it is not just, and innocent people have been erroneously executed. He cites the case of Michael Morton, who was freed after serving 25 years in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit. Morton was thankful that he was not on death row or he may not have lived to see his exoneration. Since his release, Morton has been working to expose and fix the broken system.

How many others are wrongly convicted and sitting on death row? We don’t know, he says, but a high-profile investigation by the Innocence Project into Cameron Todd Willingman’s execution concluded that he was innocent of the crime he was accused of. Pickett suggests that since we cannot be sure, we should not take the risk.

Pickett also spoke of the transformation he witnessed people undergo during their years in prison. He notes 78 men who became Christians while he was ministering to them, some of whom were released and became ministers in their own right. Others made terrible decisions in their youth or under the influence of drugs, and as they aged in prison, came to regret the people they were.

Today, Pickett’s ministry is with organizations like the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and holding discussions about his experiences. While working as a chaplain he could not speak out against the death penalty or he would have been fired. He was able to continue on as a death row chaplain only because he felt his work was a true service to men in desperate need. As he says in his book, “Yes, it was important that we be committed to our philosophies of life and death, that we hold firmly to our faith and belief in the Scriptures. At the same time, if we were to effectively minister to a man sentenced to die, it was essential that for those few hours during the death watch, our own misgivings and pains of the heart be set aside.”

Article written by Jeannine Caracciolo, middler MDiv student


Book: Within These Walls

For 15 years Rev. Carroll Pickett worked as a chaplain in the Texas penal system, during which he saw 95 men put to death by lethal injection. Compiled here are his memories of his time on death row and of the men whom he supported through their final days, as well as the reasons why his experiences led him to oppose the death penalty as a punishment. The stories reveal the compassion that existed in even the hardest of criminals and provide a behind-the-scenes look into the U.S. prison system itself. Harrowing and moving, this is a unique and sometimes graphic depiction of life on death row.

Film: At the Death House Door

At the Death House Door follows the remarkable career journey of Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous "Walls" prison unit in Huntsville, Texas. During that time he presided over 95 executions, including the very first lethal injection done anywhere in the world. After each execution, Pickett recorded an audiotape account of that fateful day. The film also tells the story of Carlos De Luna, a convict whose execution affected Pickett more than any other. Pickett firmly believed the man was innocent and two Chicago Tribune reporters turn up evidence that strongly suggests he was right.

A Kartemquin Films production for the Independent Film Channel (2008).

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) is a statewide, grassroots membership organization working to end the death penalty in Texas. TCADP engages in outreach, education, and advocacy aimed at raising awareness of issues related to the death penalty and mobilizing the citizens of Texas - and their elected officials - to support abolition. We invite all concerned citizens to join our growing movement.

The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.