Final Passages

The Reverend Carroll Pickett leaves a grim 15-year legacy of very personal ministry: Granting the last wishes of inmates, moments before their execution

By Carlton Stowers

published: November 02, 2000

After review of your taped senior sermon, I am convinced that your ministry is destined to focus on the dying; lending comfort to those faced with death and those who are losing loved ones -- From a written evaluation of seminary student Carroll Pickett in 1956 For hours the young man had paced his cramped quarters, alternately talking in nervous, rapid-fire bursts, then falling into long stretches of silence. Occasionally he would take a small bite from the cheeseburger he'd ordered, but in truth, he had no appetite. Finally, in an attempt to silence the maddening clock ticking in his mind, he sat on his bunk and focused his attention on the country music that wafted from a small radio sitting across the way.

The man -- a convicted murderer counting the hours before midnight, at which time he was scheduled to die by lethal injection -- was soon on his feet again, approaching the barrier of steel bars and wire mesh that separated him from his sole companion. Would it be possible, he asked the prison chaplain, to phone in a request?

Such were the favors, the simple acts of kindness, that the Reverend Carroll "Bud" Pickett was there to perform. In short order he found the number of the radio station, placed a call and asked that a song be played. Not wanting to ignite some hey-folks-out-in-radioland-we-got-a-caller-on-the-line-from-death-row DJ jabber, he opted not to explain why. He did, however, indicate the importance of its airing before midnight.

Then the two men, strangers to each other only hours earlier, waited. When the song had not been played by 11:45 p.m., the chaplain phoned the station again, emphasizing the urgency. Finally, just minutes before the prisoner was scheduled to make the 15-foot walk to the room where he would die, the disc jockey announced that the song was coming up next. The chaplain quickly sought out the warden and pleaded that the moving of the inmate into the death chamber be postponed for just three minutes.

The convicted murderer's death, then, was briefly delayed while he sat in the five- by nine-foot cell, eyes closed, slowly swaying to the gentle rhythm of the Willie Nelson song he'd wanted to hear. In the chill and stillness of the moment, "Help Me Make It Through the Night" called out like an unheard prayer.

For 15 years it was Pickett's job to help strangers -- men with evil histories of unspeakable violence and lost hope -- through the final hours of their lives. He would talk with them, sing with them and grant their wishes, however trivial, if within reason. They would pray together and read from the Bible. Often they would speak of the grim circumstances that led to their finally meeting.

The inmates were men convicted of capital crimes, waiting to receive lethal injections ordered by the state of Texas. Pickett was the prison chaplain, there to serve as their final confidant, the last friendly face they would ever see.

On one occasion, an inmate's tearful description of the unspeakably torturous crime he had committed was so graphic that a nearby prison guard became sick to his stomach. On another, a condemned man spread rumors to death row inmates that the minister had conducted quick funeral services for executed prisoners without families or loved ones, then watched, laughing, as their bodies were unceremoniously tossed into a creek that runs behind the prison. And that he had once loudly cursed the legal authorities who had seen fit to stay an execution at the last minute. Anti-death-penalty cause célèbre Gary Graham, the murderer-robber who had earlier seen his sentence stayed before being executed, spat in his face.

Yet Pickett stood his ground, listening, not judging; befriending, not berating.

Sometimes those to whom he was assigned would sit and stare blankly -- frozen statues saying nothing, drawing whatever comfort comes from the physical presence of another human being in the slow-ticking last minutes of their death watch. Others would pace nervously, talking constantly.

"No one," the 66-year-old clergyman says, as he reflects on his unique career, "regardless of what he might have done in his life, should die alone."

Although he could never tell them, the gentle, soft-spoken man with strong feelings about the Presbyterian doctrines he has followed and preached throughout his adult life never embraced the legal process of which he was a part. Yet as the death house chaplain for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the minister assigned to accompany murderers and rapists whose time for execution had come, Pickett was part of the procedure he, in fact, had played a key role in designing. A manual Pickett wrote, The Team Approach to Execution in the State of Texas, eventually would provide the guidelines for prisons throughout the nation.

He assumed his role at a time when death sentences were performed at one minute past midnight instead of six in the afternoon, before the national outcry against the death penalty had grown into today's boiling social and political issue; before haunting questions about the possibility that innocent people were being put to death filled the front pages; before a Huntsville execution became a routine, business-as-usual matter. But even then it troubled Pickett, conflicting with his life-long spiritual convictions. "My interpretation of the scripture "Thou shall not kill,' " he suggests, "has always applied to all."

To me," he says, "execution has never been anything more than an exercise in revenge. By definition, it is premeditated murder. There is no proof that the death penalty has served as a deterrent to crime, no figures that indicate that it is really that much more cost-effective. And it really offers no closure for the victims' loved ones. All it does is create another set of victims."

Yet he was there, standing silently at the foot of the gurney, a hand gently touching the condemned man's ankle, when the state of Texas reinstituted capital punishment in 1982, putting Fort Worth murderer Charley Brooks to death by lethal injection. And even then his work was not done. It was Pickett's responsibility to remain with the body until employees of a local mortuary arrived to retrieve it. He then drove to a nearby motel to meet with Brooks's family.

He would experience the routine 95 times before his retirement in 1995.

"My responsibility," he says, "was always to make the prisoner as comfortable as possible in those last hours, to answer whatever questions he had about the procedure he was facing, to arrange last visits and phone calls. I became his access to the outside world in those final hours."

If the inmate wanted a newspaper or magazine, Pickett went in search of it. He helped order the last meal, write letters, write wills. He listened as the man on the other side of the bars rehearsed whatever final statement he planned to make from the death chamber. If the inmate had a favorite scripture, Pickett read it. When James David Autry became upset over televised news reports that he was "nervous" about his impending death, Pickett sought reporters to assure them the inmate was, in fact, calmly awaiting his fate. Though a long-standing no-smoking rule existed in the death house, Pickett often ignored it, providing an occasional cigarette. "I had this one guy tell me, "I know I can't smoke it, but I'd like to die with a cigar in my pocket,' " Pickett remembers. "I went over to a drugstore, bought him a cigar, and as we were getting ready to make the walk into the death chamber, I slipped it into his shirt pocket. It seemed like a small thing to do if it somehow made him feel better."

When an inmate confided that he was a member of the Church of Wicca and wished to have an ordained witch give him last rites, the Reverend Pickett, who performed his role in a nondenominational capacity, got on the phone. "I finally found a woman living in Pearland and explained the situation. She drove to Huntsville in a driving rain and did a wonderful job."

During those final hours after all appeals had been exhausted, Pickett says, often a stark degree of honesty would haunt him for days: details of murders committed, confessions to additional crimes for which the inmates had never been convicted, tales of troubled lives that set their course to death row. "They were talking from somewhere deep inside, from years of carrying around the knowledge of crime and sin and immorality. They are heavy burdens most of us can't begin to imagine."

Hearing those burdens described, performing the all-but-impossible task of offering comfort, then watching men die was not a job Pickett sought. Until 1974, in fact, he had never been inside the prison for which the city in which he lives was universally known.

It was during one of the most infamous outbreaks of violence in Texas penal history that then-prison director W.J. Estelle, a member of Pickett's congregation, approached him with the request that he come to the downtown Walls Unit. Estelle asked that he counsel family members of the 16 hostages taken during the 11-day siege and attempted breakout by convicts Fred Gomez Carrasco, Ignacio Cuevas and Rudolfo Dominguez.

Before the standoff ended, two prison librarians -- Elizabeth Beseda and Julia Standley, both members of Pickett's church -- had been killed. In fact, Pickett had been helping Standley plan for her daughter's wedding only days before she was taken hostage. Ultimately responsibility would fall to the minister to inform both families of the deaths that had occurred.

"Once that was over," he says, "I swore I would never set foot inside a prison again." For six years he kept that vow. That is, until the spring of 1980, when Estelle approached him again, this time about joining the prison's staff of chaplains. Pickett's primary responsibility, he was told, would be to minister to terminally ill patients in the prison hospital and psychiatric wards and occasionally to conduct funerals for those without families or anyone to claim their bodies.

In 1982 Pickett's job description changed drastically. The warden called a staff meeting to announce that executions soon would be resumed. Pickett vividly remembers that meeting. "Nobody in the room had any idea what it was going to be like, even what the procedure was. We all went down to the old death row to see what it looked like. The thing that first struck me was the fact that there were only eight cells. When it had been designed, there was no thought that there would ever be more than eight men on death row at any given time."

When the staff visited what would come to be known as the death house, the population of death row had grown to 100. More than 400 are residing at the nearby Terrell Unit, where all those awaiting execution are housed.

The prison's infamous "Old Sparky," the electric chair formerly used in executions, was stored in a room at the end of the narrow building, replaced by a gurney on which the condemned inmate would take his final breath after three separate chemicals -- one a general anesthetic, one that halts the function of the respiratory muscles, and a third that stops the heart -- were injected into his bloodstream.

"Knowing that we would all soon be involved in an execution," he says, "was nerve-racking. Sitting around planning how to put someone to death was an unsettling exercise. And even after we'd settled on all the details -- when the prisoner would be brought to the death house, what he would be allowed to do in the final hours, how we'd get him from the cell to the death chamber, and how the actual execution would be carried out -- none of us were really comfortable. We practiced over and over, using a guard acting the part of the inmate. Without telling others involved, we'd even instruct him to put up a fight so it could be determined how to deal with it. And even at that, none of us had any idea how it would go."

To everyone's relief, that first execution went smoothly. "One of the things I asked the warden to tell Charley Brooks as we waited that day was that none of us had ever done this before," Pickett recalls. "It just seemed that he deserved to know that."

In time, Pickett would be able to provide every minute detail to those prisoners who wished to know about the execution procedure they were facing. With the exception of rare, minor problems -- like the time it took more than a half hour to locate a vein that hadn't collapsed from a prisoner's lifetime of drug abuse, or when the intravenous needle momentarily slipped from the prisoner's arm as the fatal drugs were being administered -- the executions, all modeled after the one in '82, have been conducted without malfunction.

Nevertheless, Pickett has his reservations about the dark exercise and what it has accomplished.

Eighteen years after presiding at the funeral services of church members Beseda and Standley, the minister found himself face-to-face with Cuevas, who was finally scheduled to be executed for their murders during the '74 standoff.

"It was an awkward situation," he remembers, "since my responsibilities were to families of the victims as well as those of the person being put to death." Although relatives of the two murdered women were aware of Pickett's long-ago involvement in the siege and its aftermath, neither Cuevas nor members of his family were ever told. "I simply felt it would be more difficult for them to accept me and what I was attempting to do for them if they'd been aware I'd had a personal relationship with those Cuevas had been convicted of murdering."

In the final hours before he was executed, Cuevas admitted to the chaplain that Ignacio Cuevas was not even his real name. Instead, it was the name he had taken from a man he'd killed years earlier.

"One of the things I had to do," Pickett recalls, "was find out what the family wanted to do with the body after the execution. Cuevas's son had come from Pecos and told me he had already built a casket and dug a grave for his father. He said he'd bought a new pickup truck to take his daddy home in."

Pickett ponders that long-ago night, which he says offers a strong argument that there is never real solace to be found in the wake of unspeakable evil. "It has been 26 years since I buried Drew Standley's mother," he says, "and there is still no closure. For her or for Cuevas's family."

One of the traditions attached to the administration of the death sentence that troubled him most, Pickett says, was that of the family members' being allowed to witness the execution. "I've always felt it would be easier on everyone if they could find it in themselves not to be there and watch.

"I would meet with them beforehand and do the best I could to explain what they would see, but it rarely prepared them. There is a great difference in watching an elderly loved one die of cancer and seeing a healthy man who, for lack of a better term, is not of dying age, being put to death. Seeing someone you care for strapped down, scared, totally helpless, knowing he is about to be killed, is a traumatic experience beyond almost any other I can imagine."

From his vantage point in the death chamber, Pickett saw witnesses faint, and he watched as others became hysterical and violently ill. "I don't like to think of the number of times I've been told by a family member afterward that I hadn't prepared them for what they actually experienced," he says. "The truth of the matter is, no matter how hard you try, there is just no way to do it."

I n keeping with his duties, however, Pickett never voiced his personal feelings on the matter, never discouraged any visit by those who wished to be on hand in the final moments. For the man who had spent his boyhood in a rural community on the outskirts of Victoria, dreaming of the day that he would become an algebra teacher and tennis coach, the minister had spent his time as a prison chaplain walking a fine line. The Presbyterian Church in 1977 had taken a firm position against capital punishment yet had given him permission to conduct what it classified as "special ministry." The role he had agreed to play never got easier.

Widowed at the time he began serving as companion and minister to inmates facing their death, he would return home to long nights of angst and sleeplessness after each execution. "The things I'd talked with these men about," he says, "was privileged, so I couldn't speak to anyone about what they had said. But I had to get it out of my system somehow." Thus he began a routine of speaking his thoughts into a tape recorder.

Pickett has an oral history, filed, but shared with no one, of the career many of his friends said was certain to drive him crazy.

Although he has never played the tapes, he remembers. One night he sat and listened as a rapist-murderer told of staking his victim to an ant bed, leaving the horrified young woman to endure a death beyond imagination. The Amarillo man who graphically described how he had raped an elderly nun. The father who had poisoned Halloween candy to cause the death of his own son. The man who had killed as many people while in prison as he had while a member of society. Another who had admitted the abuse of more than 200 children. A young man, frustrated with the disappointments of his life, who had methodically murdered his entire family. They came to him bearing distressing epithets like "The Good Samaritan Killer," "The Candy Man," "The Soldier of Fortune Murderer." It became a nightmarish litany.

It was these such tales that many friends and fellow ministers cited as they assured him that he would not last at the job. "I was told that after going through the procedure a couple of times, I'd be absolutely nuts," he says. On two occasions, in fact, when circumstances made it impossible for him to attend scheduled executions, the preachers who substituted for him vowed they never would do it again.

In time, he says, he would seek counsel of his own. "On a couple of occasions," he admits, "I had a difficult time putting things out of my mind and went to a fellow minister for help." One such visit, he remembers, followed the execution of a terrified 24-year-old killer to whom he had carefully described the death house routine. "As I did with everyone, I had assured him that once the drugs were administered it would be only seven to 12 seconds before he died.

"But that night, as I touched his ankle, feeling his pulse, I realized that it had taken longer than usual. When 12 seconds passed and his heart was still beating, I felt a tremendous sense that I'd let him down. It weighed on me that he'd gone to his death feeling that I'd lied to him. It took me a long time to shake that. To this day, I can see those big brown eyes looking up at me."

The death house procedure, still being exercised, was suggested by the Reverend Pickett almost two decades ago and since has been passed on to prisons in 38 states. It was essential, he insisted from the start, that the chaplain gain the confidence of the inmate being brought to the death house; thus he would have to be provided with wide latitude in decision-making. In essence, in the final hours before the execution, the chaplain was in control from the moment the inmate was delivered, strip-searched and placed in the holding cell until the time the guards arrived to escort him down the narrow hallway and into the sterile cinder-block room where death would be administered.

Pickett, who made it a rule never to visit inmates on death row, was always waiting at the door of the death house cell when they arrived. Though he had read the convict's file to learn personal information, he made it a point never to dwell on details of the crime or crimes that had been committed. "The person would not have been there," he says, "had he not done something terrible." That was enough for Pickett to know.

"My purpose was to help him through it in any way I could, to keep him as calm as possible while he waited to die." The clergyman is obviously proud of the fact that never, during his tenure, did a prisoner physically attack him or the two guards assigned to stand silently at the far end of the death house hallway.

Sitting in a chair outside the cell, Pickett would detail the ensuing sequence of events and ask whom the prisoner might like to have visit him. If no family members were present, long-distance phone calls (restricted to the continental United States), routed through the warden's office, were permitted. Many asked for prayers or that the chaplain read scriptures from the Bible. A few showed no interest.

He would arrange the sequence of the emotional visits with wives and parents, brothers and sisters. Then, as the time for the execution neared, he would help the prisoner write letters, which he would promise to personally mail, and order his final meal. "There's a myth that they can order anything, but the truth is they are allowed only what the prison kitchen has available. And while most do ask for a rather lavish meal, most only pick at it once it arrives."

The chaplain, in fact, would routinely warn them that the fatal drugs that would soon be pumped into their bloodstream seemed to work more slowly on a full stomach.

Andy Barefoot, convicted of the murder of a sheriff's deputy in Killeen, had asked only for a bowl of sand and a glass of vinegar. "I asked him why," recalls Pickett, "and he said, "Because that's what Jesus had. It's in the Bible.' The meal was denied. He settled for my reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for three hours."

And if an inmate planned to make a final statement from the death chamber, Pickett would encourage that he rehearse it. "I tried to explain that whatever they had to say were the words the world would remember them by, so they had to give it some thought." Also, it was in those final hours that the condemned spoke most candidly, talking of their crimes, whatever degree of remorse they felt, their questions of faith and the hereafter or simply their anger at the system that they felt had treated them unfairly.

"While it is impossible not to be scared," Pickett says, "there is a peaceful atmosphere in the solitude of the last cell they'll be placed into. On death row there is a loud and vulgar noise that is constant. In the death house there is a quiet they have not experienced in years. There, they know, no one is going to harass them or invade their last few hours of privacy. I've actually seen relief on the face of many when they finally arrived there. In many instances, I've had inmates tell me that the few hours spent in the death house cell was the first time they had been treated as a person since coming to prison."

Finally, 15 minutes before the scheduled time for the execution, Pickett would say, "It's time to go," and guards would enter the cell to escort the prisoner through the hallway and into the powder-blue-walled death chamber. Pickett walked at the prisoner's side, then stood silently at the foot of the gurney as the inmate was strapped in place.

When all was set, after the prisoner's final words had been voiced into a microphone extended above the gurney -- sometimes in a whisper, sometimes as if boomed from a pulpit -- the warden would give the signal (removal of his glasses), and the lethal injections would begin. In seconds it would be over.

But not for Pickett. After remaining with the body until the funeral home ambulance had come, he would visit distraught family members, sometimes late into the night. And then his reflective vigil would often last until daybreak.

Adhering to the procedure wasn't always easy. While his focus in those final hours was to keep the inmate as calm as possible, often those in law enforcement would demand one final chance at obtaining a confession or details of the crime for which the prisoner had been convicted. One sheriff even suggested that Pickett disregard the confidentiality vow he'd taken as a minister and wear a wire so that any admission to other crimes of which a particular inmate was suspected might be recorded. Ultimately Pickett went to the warden with a request that then-Texas attorney general Jim Maddox be kept away from the death house on execution day. "He always wanted to talk with the prisoner, asking for details of the crime," Pickett recalls. Maddox, he says, only made a bad situation worse with his demanding demeanor and monopoly of the condemned man's final hours.

"One of the most important parts of my job," Pickett recalls, "became keeping people out of the prisoner's cell until a quarter of 12, when the guards came for him."

Most of those who made the short trip to the death house already knew they would soon meet Pickett. Inmates whose executions had been stayed at the last minute had returned to describe the events and the demeanor of the chaplain to fellow death row inmates. "For that reason -- knowing that word of anything I said and did was going to get back to death row -- I made it an iron-clad rule never to promise anything I couldn't deliver."

Despite such caution, troubling stories made their way back to death row. There was the time, Pickett recalls, when a condemned prisoner balked at being strapped to the death chamber gurney. The inmate sat up and began fighting the guards who were trying to strap him down, at which point the chaplain reached over and gently placed a hand on his chest, trying to calm him. As the man lay back, terrified, he asked the chaplain to maintain physical contact. And so he did, keeping his hand on the man's chest throughout the procedure.

The following day, a newspaper headline read, "Chaplain Holds Inmate Down While He Dies." Word of this spread quickly along death row. What went unmentioned was that the chaplain involved was not Carroll Pickett but a fellow minister substituting for him.

"While I was asked by almost every prisoner I met, I never shared my thoughts on the death penalty. My response was always that how I felt had nothing to do with why I was there or what was about to happen.

"My feeling about capital punishment had absolutely nothing to do with the person I was there to help. I'd tell them that I wasn't the judge or jury, that I didn't make the law. Nor was I there to enforce the law. That was not my business. I wanted them to know that it made no difference how I felt about capital punishment or the court system or death by lethal injection, because I had absolutely no control over those things."

And so, none of the 95 men the chaplain walked to their death ever knew that he embraced the definition of their fate fashioned by Nightline host Ted Koppel. "He came down and did one of his shows on an execution," Pickett remembers, "and at some point referred to what we were doing as "sterilized killing.' It's the best description I've ever heard."

Yet for years he made the most of a situation with which he spiritually struggled. "I came away from the experience," he admits, "with far more questions than answers."

The executions of men whose crimes had been committed years earlier when they were only teenagers, he admits, troubled him most. "I would find myself thinking back to my own teenage years and saying to myself, "There but for the grace of God' I've talked with men who were as gentle as anyone I've ever met, people who knew they had done a terrible wrong and were genuinely remorseful, people I'd have been comfortable with if they visited in my home. Yet for one terrible mistake" With that his voice trails off. The law as written, he concedes, offers no possibility of redemption for such men, no differentiation between them and the hardened career criminal.

And there were those he viewed as too intellectually challenged to grasp the severity of their situation as they faced death. "For [Governor George] Bush to say that the state of Texas has never executed a mentally retarded person is just not true," he says. "I've been there; I've talked with them."

During the course of his work for the prison, did he meet and counsel any prisoners whom he felt had been wrongfully convicted? "Yes, I was convinced that some of them did not commit the crimes for which they died." To be more specific, he says, would uselessly reopen old wounds suffered by family members.

In retirement, Pickett has distanced himself from the prison and the death house. These days he sleeps better, smiles more often and enjoys life with his wife, Jane, whom he married ten years ago. But he has the memories and the answerless questions about a legal system bent on demanding a life for a life. And one promise he continues to keep to the man who first persuaded him into the job.

"When Estelle retired and moved out to California," he says, "he asked that I do something for him."

In honor of that favor, Carroll Pickett dutifully visits the local cemetery on the anniversary of the 1974 deaths of prison librarians Elizabeth Beseda and Julia Standley.

There, at Estelle's request, he places a single red rose on each of their graves.