The Convicted and Conflicted 'At the Death House Door'
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Killing people is a hard business, whether with a knife on the street or with a needle in the execution chamber, and there are times that "At the Death House Door," an IFC documentary, gets at the truth of it all.
There is Fred Allen, a former corrections official on the tie-down team at the Texas State Prison, who escorted 119 men and one woman into the death chamber before he lost it and couldn't do it anymore. There is Rose Rhoton, the sister of executed inmate Carlos De Luna, who now believes, along with the filmmakers, that her brother was wrongly put to death in 1989. She is fighting back tears and telling how she raised herself out of fierce poverty because she "wasn't going to be this uneducated Mexican person" and how she is consumed with guilt for not fighting harder for her brother, and you find yourself really, really rooting for her.
Unfortunately, this documentary is primarily about a far less compelling person, prison chaplain Carroll Pickett, and the case for De Luna's innocence isn't nearly as strong as filmmakers seek to portray it.
Pickett sounds like a great story, right out of the Johnny Cash songbook: The grandson of a murder victim, he grew up to be a conservative minister in Huntsville, Tex. He became the prison chaplain more by chance than design and, after a divorce, wound up alone and in the death house. From 1982 to 1995, he ministered to 95 death-row inmates, spending their entire last days with them. He came home after each execution and made audiotapes that recounted the gruesome events of the day.
He eventually became an outspoken critic of the death penalty.
It's good stuff. But filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert, who most notably gave us "Hoop Dreams," never really get to Pickett, emotionally speaking.
We see him leading the prison choir, we listen to his tapes, meet his family and second wife, we see him walking through the prison graveyard, and yet he never comes across as haunted, troubled or possessed of any real insight. His transformation was gradual, he tells his family. He tired of seeing patients of borderline mental abilities bringing coloring books to the death house; it became a "moral, spiritual, biblical thing -- that this was wrong."
His transformation, he says, also was based on his certainty that De Luna was innocent. This becomes the heart of the tale: An innocent man may have been executed, and Pickett was an unwitting accomplice.
The story switches back and forth from Pickett's life to the Chicago Tribune's 2006 investigation into the De Luna case, which exposed many questions about his prosecution. (The Tribune actually funded part of the filming, which was not disclosed in the film itself but should have been.)
Here's the case:
De Luna was arrested for stabbing a gas station clerk named Wanda Lopez to death in February 1983 as part of a botched robbery. He was discovered shirtless and shoeless a few hundred yards away, hiding under a truck. He was on parole.
He told police he saw the murder happen but that he didn't do it. He said a violent friend of his, Carlos Hernandez, did. The two looked strikingly similar, and could have easily been mistaken for each other by the two eyewitnesses. No forensic evidence tied De Luna (or anyone else) to the attack. One prosecutor claimed at the trial that Hernandez did not exist, while a co-prosecutor who knew better said nothing. (This alone seems like prosecutorial misconduct, and grounds for a mistrial.) The murder weapon was just like a knife Hernandez was known to carry. He later bragged to people that he was the real killer. (Hernandez died while in prison for another crime in 1999.) De Luna's sister remembers, tearfully, that he was scared of the dark as a child. We get lots of soft piano music and photographs of doe-eyed De Luna, looking harmless.
"I was absolutely certain Texas murdered an innocent person," Pickett says.
I have no idea of De Luna's guilt or innocence, but as a former courts reporter, I didn't care for how the filmmakers stacked the deck in De Luna's favor. They mention he was on parole, but never what for. (Let's try Mr. Scared-of-the-Dark pleading no contest to attempted aggravated rape, as well as an arrest for breaking three ribs of the 53-year-old mother of a friend while nearly raping her, too. He also had an arrest history since he was 15 for burglary, auto theft, paint sniffing, drunkenness, etc.) They also don't reveal that his alibi for that night was proved to be a lie. And they fail to note that once De Luna was convicted, Hernandez might have claimed credit for the murder to gain street credibility.
De Luna certainly deserved a new trial -- which means he shouldn't have been executed on that conviction -- but in my book, he was hardly a poster child for harmlessness, much less for tinkling piano music and soft-focus photographs.
Much better is Allen, the barrel-chested former execution team member. He spent 12 hours with the condemned, tied them down on the gurney, then wheeled their corpses out. He finally had some sort of breakdown. Left law enforcement.
On camera, he's so sincere it hurts.
He describes his after-execution routine this way: "I did what a man does: go home, sleep, go to work the next day. Put it behind you."
"Gets pretty hard when you do two or three a week."
A moment or two later, he can't go on. The ghosts have him.
At the Death House Door (94 minutes) premieres tonight at 9 on IFC.