Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why A Man of Faith Lost Faith in the Death Penalty

Hunt for Justice by Cynthia Hunt

I spent my 27th birthday covering the execution of pickax murderess Karla Faye Tucker.

The Death Row Woman Who Divided a Nation

Her crime was sadistic. The jury that sentenced her to death heard a tape of Tucker bragging that she had orgasms as she and an accomplice hacked their two victims to death. Later, Tucker had a jailhouse conversion to Christianity that was so compelling even death penalty advocates like Rev. Pat Robertson pleaded with then Texas Governor George W. Bush to commute her sentence.

Leading up to the execution, I did emotional interviews with people from all sides of this case.

One Tucker juror cried as she told me she stood by her death sentence decision but that Tucker’s execution would be the second worst day of her life, second only to a loved one’s death.

Even the Victim’s Family Disagreed

I did an exclusive interview with the victim’s grown children who had never spoken publicly. They wanted to see Tucker die. During the interview, their father became so upset reliving his wife’s murder he had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

But even this victim’s family was split. The brother of this very same victim actually forgave Karla Faye and fought to have her life spared.

On February 3, 1998, that divided family witnessed Karla Faye Tucker (pictured left) die after a lethal injection. As I turned 27, I reported her death to an equally split nation.

Not since Karla Faye Tucker has there been a person who could capture the attention of both sides of death penalty debate and make them reconsider their position—until now.

Documentary Airs Tonight

Two documentary filmmakers will introduce us to such a person in their film, “At the Death House Door.” The documentary airs Thursday night on the Independent Film Channel.

The film tells the story of Pastor Carroll Pickett, a plain-spoken prison chaplain who witnessed ninety-five executions on Texas Death Row.

A Man of Faith's Conversion

Pickett, a Presbyterian minister, began his career as a prison preacher who believed in capital punishment because of his grandfather’s own murder and a prison siege that killed two people from his own congregation, but he never told anyone what he thought.

“If I said I was for capital punishment, the inmates would’ve never talked to me," Pickett says. "If I said I was against it, I’d been fired so I kept my mouth shut.”

But after fifteen years of watching executions, he decided capital punishment was not just, moral, or a deterrent. Now, thirteen years after his retirement, Pickett tells the story of the ninety-five executions he witnessed, a story he did not seek to tell.

The Death Tapes

After each execution, Pickett recorded his thoughts on a cassette tape. He says he needed to talk and the only thing in his house was a tape recorder. He never intended for the tapes to be used, but when he casually mentioned them to some filmmakers who were doing research, they persuaded him to share those tapes. Their focus of their film immediately changed to the post-execution thoughts of this pivotal man.

On these tapes, Pickett describes each execution in both large and small detail. He says what it is like to pray with the killers, what the condemned said to him, and what each man did as the lethal cocktail flowed into his veins. Pickett watched the execution of Ronald O'Bryan (pictured above). He was put to death for poisoning his son's Halloween candy with cyanide.

Preacher Accuses Texas Officials of Covering Up Botched Execution

Pickett describes how something had gone wrong with one of the executions. He says he watched the inmate die a slow, agonizing death that took eleven minutes.

"That’s not, to me, either Christian or American or Texan,” Pickett told a group. He says that Texas officials intentionally lie when they claim there has never been an execution with complications.

The film explores the case of Carlos De Luna, a man Pickett and many others believe was innocent. The documentary covers the facts of the case and shakes the confidence of citizens who think only the guilty make it to the death chamber.

Through Reverend Pickett, this film should raise new questions and concerns in the hearts of many Americans about capital punishment and how often we should use it.

A Texas Execution Few Opposed

When I think of this never-ending debate, my thoughts always drift to another case and the twin daughters of murder victim, Dr. Claudia Benton (shown below). Her little girls were only in the sixth grade when the so-called “railroad serial killer,” Angel Maturino Resendez, broke into their home, beat their mother to death, and raped her post mortem. Texas executed him in 2006. I think Benton’s daughters who are now grown must feel better knowing that monster is no longer on this earth.

At least Resendez died with a last meal, prison chaplain, and a final statement, which is a lot more than the good doctor, the school teacher, the preacher and his wife or any of the other almost dozen victims had when that monster executed them.

More Executions Expected in Coming Months

I’ll be tuning in tonight for
Pickett’s story. In April, the United States Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s method of capital punishment by lethal injection. That decision means more inmates will likely be put to death in the coming months.

Whatever side you are on, there is something to learn from a humble man of God who watched ninety-five convicted killers take their last breath.

"At the Death House Door" Premieres Thursday, May 29 Independent Film Channel 9:00 p.m. EDT


Kathryn Casey said...

Sounds fascinating, Cynthia. I know I'll be tuning in.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Thanks for letting us know about this documentary, Cynthia. I remember how emotionally draining it was for me to witness one execution--but 95? . . . Unimaginable. Years ago, I toured that facility with my CJ students. On the way to the "Death House," we saw the row of cells where the condemned wait with prison chaplains. There was a certain heaviness in that area--even more than the actual execution room. Maybe it was from contemplating what was on the other side of that door at the end of the cell block. I've always wondered about prisoners' conversations with clergy in those final hours. Looks like I'll find out tonight.

Jan said...

This sounds fascinating, I hope it airs in my area.

Jan said...

Well, heck. I had to upgrade my satellite channel package in order to see this, but I think it will be worth it.