"At the Death House Door," premiering tonight on the Independent Film Channel, tells the story of Presbyterian pastor Carroll Pickett, who for 15 years was chaplain at the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he shepherded 95 condemned men to their execution. Made by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (director and director of photography, respectively, of the much-laureled "Hoop Dreams"), it wanders a bit on the way but gathers power as it goes.
Apart from the glimpse it affords into a closed world, it's a fine portrayal of religious temperament and the workings of conscience, and it captures both the ordinary and extraordinary, the practical and spiritual aspects of Pickett's life. We see him as a fallible family man and as a determined professional, for whom a calling was also a job -- a job that came close to destroying him, but which he found difficult to quit.
Pickett would return to an empty home after each execution -- his marriage fell apart soon after he took the job -- and recount the details of the day, the prisoner's day, into a cassette tape recorder. (Perhaps not surprisingly for a minister, his spontaneous spoken prose is quite elegant.) It was a sort of therapy for him, a man so unused to crying that when he did, says a daughter, it came out "as kind of a screechy noise." "Those tapes must be his tears," says Pickett's second wife, Jane.
It was also a way to memorialize his charges. (In the prison graveyard, the unclaimed dead are marked not by name but number, with an "X" for the executed.) He remembers the prisoner who wanted to die singing, the stroke victim he had to spoon-feed his last meal, the believer in reincarnation.
"And if I believe him, he is now a tree in Tyler, Texas," says Pickett, not dismissively.
One of the prisoners to whom he ministered was Carlos De Luna, convicted of killing a gas station cashier -- indeed, this project began when the Chicago Tribune approached James and Gilbert to make a film about a pair of Tribune reporters who were trying posthumously to prove De Luna's innocence; they make a compelling case. (The Tribune, which is a corporate cousin of the Los Angeles Times, funded their first shoot.)
That story winds through Pickett's as a kind of secondary but crucial counter-melody. Although the pastor met him, as was the custom, only on the day of the execution, he felt instinctively that De Luna was innocent. That feeling, and the 11 minutes it took the prisoner to die, signaled the beginning of the end of Pickett's career in the penal system.
"That's not, to me, either Christian, or American, or Texan," he said of De Luna's protracted end.
Although this isn't a film that any proponent of capital punishment would ever have made, neither is it overtly polemical. Pickett, who came to believe that, as "a moral, spiritual, biblical thing," the death penalty is wrong, does voice the main practical points against it: It's never been shown to be a deterrent to crime; death sentences are racially disproportionate; police, judges and juries are not infallible. More philosophical questions are raised as well, though mainly to show how they grew urgent within Pickett himself.
There is a passing ironic reference to his politics being somewhere to the right of Rush Limbaugh's, but the filmmakers otherwise leave that subject alone. It's beside their point and potentially distracting from it. This is a film about a moral journey -- as Pickett made sure to see his prisoners, we are allowed to see him as a person, with personal problems, on a personal journey, and not merely as a collection of positions with which we may agree or disagree.
'At the Death House Door'
When: 9 ET/PT tonight
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)