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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Documentary addresses wrongful conviction

Published: September 19, 2008
Section: News

On Thursday night, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Maurice Possley and former death house chaplain Reverend Carroll Pickett had an intense and thought provoking question and answer session with audience members on the topic of the death penalty.

The discussion followed a screening of the documentary “At the Death House Door.” The film interweaves the personal story of Reverend Pickett, who ministered to and walked 95 men to the death chamber, and the story of Chicago Tribune reporters who investigated the possible innocence of one of those men.

“At the Death House Door” describes the relationship Reverend Pickett had with “The Walls” prison in Huntsville, Texas. Pickett was introduced to the prison in 1974, when three inmates took hostages and held the prison under siege. During the 11 days of the siege, Pickett ministered to the families of the hostages. The siege ended in bloodshed with two inmates and two hostages dead.

However, Pickett did return, first simply as a chaplain who led a choir composed of prisoners, and then as death house chaplain in 1982. His role as death house chaplain, as told to him by the warden, was to earn the inmate’s trust and “seduce his emotions so he won’t fight at midnight.” He would eventually minister to and lead Ignacio Cuevas to the death chamber, one of the inmates who lead the prison siege. “I just wanted him to die,” Pickett said.

Now Pickett is a fervent anti-death penalty activist, but at that time he saw nothing wrong with capital punishment.

Throughout the film, Pickett shares the stories of the many executions he witnessed. Over the years, Pickett has witnessed botched executions, confessions, and many last words. During the question and answer session he stated that of the 95 inmates, “Fifteen I know are innocent.”

One of those 15 cases, Carlos De Luna, attracted the attention of Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, when they received a tip that another man had confessed to the murder of which De Luna had been convicted. The investigation revealed sloppy police work, holes in the prosecution’s case, and statements from acquaintances and family members of Carlos Hernandez who said he bragged about the murder.

Although the prosecution was aware of Hernandez’s existence, they refused to pursue the lead since they had arrested De Luna at the crime scene. De Luna had been found hiding underneath a truck near the gas station where the woman had been murdered. He claimed he had fled the police because he was on parole.

De Luna’s execution almost caused Pickett to retire. Pickett’s first impression of De Luna was that he was “young and nervous” and he wondered how De Luna could have committed the acts he was convicted of. When De Luna was given the lethal injection, he did not die immediately, instead it took 11 minutes. Pickett, who had told De Luna that the death would be quick and painless, confessed that he was haunted by the thought that “he might’ve been thinking: you lied to me.” Earlier in the film, Pickett stated that his change in thinking regarding the death penalty was a “process.” He came to believe that “this is wrong.”

After the film screening, members of the audience asked pointed questions, which elicited thoughtful and sometimes difficult answers. Pickett, who is actively pursuing the end of capital punishment in Texas said that change would be difficult. “They don’t believe in the death penalty anymore [but] they have to carry on the Texas tradition…Texas is a hard nut to crack.”

Throughout the discussion, Pickett emphasized that a person would only need to see one execution to never want to see another one. “I want every member of the Supreme Court to watch an execution,” he said.

A member of the audience asked Possley whether any of the articles he wrote about prisoners who were perhaps wrongfully convicted, effected any change. Possley said, “Authorities are very reluctant to admit that they made a mistake…they duck, evade, they try to slide away.”

On his own view of the death penalty, Possley, who recently left the Tribune revealed that he believes in “life without parole.” He admitted that it was difficult watching the film; in 1983 his best friend was murdered in a courtroom. Possley quoted the documentary, “All we get is two dead people.”

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism’s Justice Brandeis Innocence Project sponsored the event. The project is devoted to applying investigative reporting techniques to cases in which the inmate may be innocent, there is no DNA evidence to test, and the convicted faces the death penalty.