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By Merle Bertrand | March 31, 2008

“Hang ‘em high. Hang ‘em fast.” That’s the lesson the Reverend Carroll Pickett learned early in life from his father, whose father was a murder victim. It was still his mindset when Rev. Pickett began his career as the Death House Chaplain at the infamous Huntsville prison in 1982. There he prayed with, counseled and served as a spiritual advisor for condemned prisoners from their arrival on Death Row to the moment the State’s lethal cocktail removed them from this Earth in the execution chamber.

Fifteen years and ninety-five executions later, however, Pickett retired a changed man. “At the Death House Door,” the riveting and melancholy documentary from directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert, explores that transformation…and the reasoning, reasons, and circumstances that led to it, in ways that would give even the most ardent death penalty proponent pause.

“At the Death House Door” relies on interviews with Rev. Pickett and his family, as well as on archival video footage and photographs from his days at the prison. While these elements are haunting enough on their own, what really sucker punches the viewer are Rev. Pickett’s tapes; homemade audio archives of his private thoughts and recollections that he recorded immediately after every execution over which he presided.

While Rev. Pickett’s perceptions on the death penalty were gradually changing already, perhaps inevitably so given his close contact with so many condemned prisoners, the film goes on to explain how the appalling case of Carlos DeLuna finally pushed Rev. Pickett over to the other side of the death penalty debate. Responsible for counseling and comforting DeLuna, wrongfully convicted for the murder of a gas station attendant, until the innocent man’s horrifying 11-minute long execution, the experience of helping, however indirectly, an innocent man die turned Rev. Pickett into a staunch death penalty opponent.

James and Gilbert have crafted a haunting and thought-provoking film on a subject we don’t usually like to talk much about except in generalities and pre-determined talking points. Whatever one’s feelings about the death penalty, “At the Death House Door” provides a rare insight from inside the death chamber; one the viewer is not soon likely to forget.

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