At the Death House Door
At the Death House Door

Back in September, during a Republican presidential debate, Texas governor Rick Perry was asked about the 234 executions he’d presided over, and before the moderator could even finish his question the audience burst into applause. This now notorious moment reminded me of At the Death House Door (2008), a powerful documentary about capital punishment by Kartemquin Films veterans Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) and Peter Gilbert. In the film, Carroll Pickett, a Texas minister who served as chaplain to 95 condemned men from 1982 to ’95, notes with disgust that a burger joint near the prison offers “Murder Meals,” and the main attraction at the prison museum is “Old Sparky,” the retired electric chair. “When they reinstituted the death penalty, people in Huntsville were thrilled,” Pickett’s middle-aged daughter remembers ruefully. “It was always packed on execution night—I mean, lined up, all up and down that street. We made a lot of money in Huntsville when we had the executions. We’re proud of it! We’re killing ’em again! We’re killing ’em here in Huntsville.

At the Death House Door has been on my mind especially because director Werner Herzog just released another documentary about capital punishment in Texas, Into the Abyss. I have a hard time separating the two films in my mind because they’re so similar. Both movies ponder the moral abyss of capital punishment and the metaphysical abyss of death itself. Both are preoccupied with families—of the murder victims, of the condemned men, of the state officials who put them to death. Both, incidentally, draw on the sobering testimony of Fred Allen, a Texas Department of Corrections official who abandoned his career and forfeited his pension after supervising 120 executions. The main difference between the movies is that Into the Abyss (which continues this week at Landmark’s Century Centre) focuses on a condemned man who was clearly guilty, whereas At the Death House Door (long gone, but available on DVD) focuses on one who was probably innocent. Without a doubt, this is one of the more grueling double features you could ever watch, but in concert the two movies might force you to think, rethink, and rethink again your position on the death penalty.

Certainly Carroll Pickett has. As pastor of the Presbyterian church in Huntsville, he was summoned to the state prison in July 1974 to assist in a hostage crisis: armed convicts had seized 11 workers from the prison school and library, and the warden wanted Pickett to counsel the hostages’ families. Pickett knew two of the hostages, Julia Standley and Yvonne Beseda, from his congregation, and as the siege dragged on for more than a week, each of them spoke to Pickett on the phone, giving instructions for their funeral services. At the Death House Door includes audio from a tearful conversation between one of the women and her children, who never saw her again. Standley and Beseda bravely volunteered to accompany the convicts as they made a break for it, and when Texas Rangers assaulted the escape party with fire hoses, the convicts murdered the two women. Devastated, Pickett swore he’d never enter the prison again, but a few years later, marriage problems forced him to relinquish his pastorship, and he accepted a job as prison chaplain. In the film he recalls the awful experience of daily climbing the ramp where his two friends had died: “You can still see the bloodstains.”

When his church debated whether to denounce the death penalty, which was being reinstated in Texas following a series of Supreme Court decisions, Pickett defended capital punishment. “How would you like to see one of your members with five bullet holes in her back?” he recalls telling people. “How would you like to identify the body of one of your church members with a three-inch hole in her chest?” But his feelings started to change in December 1982 when, as prison chaplain, he began ministering to the men who arrived in Huntsville to die by lethal injection. Pickett stayed with them from 6 AM until they breathed their last at midnight, and At the Death House Door excerpts some of the cassette tapes he recorded in private after each execution. They reveal a man shaken to his core by what he witnessed in the death chamber. In 1991 he was forced to counsel Ignacio Cuevas, who had murdered Julia Standley, but the killer had racked up so many victims that her name didn’t even come up. After Cuevas was executed, Pickett reports, two of Standley’s children insisted to him that the event brought them no closure, only renewed grief over their mother’s death.

Intertwined with Pickett’s story is the sad case of Carlos De Luna, who was executed in December 1989 for the stabbing murder of a gas station cashier, Wanda Lopez. A recent parolee, De Luna was found hiding under a pickup truck a few blocks from the scene of the crime and positively identified by a witness, but no physical evidence linked him to the killing. Fifteen years after De Luna was executed in Huntsville, Chicago Tribune investigative reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley published a series of stories that cast serious doubt on De Luna’s guilt: no fewer than five people had come forward to claim that Carlos Hernandez, a violent felon who bore a strong resemblance to De Luna, and who’d been executed in 1999 for other crimes, had bragged of having gotten away with Lopez’s murder. In the movie Carroll Pickett remembers the De Luna execution as a botched job that took an agonizing 11 minutes. “I had promised him it wouldn’t hurt, it wouldn’t take long,” Pickett reported on his cassette tape. “He might have been thinking, ‘You lied to me.'”

Just as De Luna’s desperate gaze in a mug shot becomes the most haunting image in At the Death House Door, Into the Abyss is defined by the childlike grin of Michael James Perry. The young man sat for an interview with Herzog eight days before he was executed on July 1, 2010, for the murders of 50-year-old Sandra Stotler, her teenage son Adam, and Adam’s friend Jeremy Richardson. Nine years earlier, Perry and his friend Jason Aaron Burkett had come to the Stotlers’ home in Conroe, Texas, looking for Adam and hoping to steal the family’s cherry-red Camaro. When they found Sandra alone, Perry killed her with a shotgun and the two men disposed of her body in a nearby lake; they returned to the family’s gated community to collect the car but couldn’t get in, so they lured Adam and Jeremy to a wooded spot and killed them for the electronic security clicker. Police video of the first crime scene, excerpted in the film, is eerier than anything the fabled Herzog could have dreamed up: blood speckles climb up a wall, an unwatched TV glows in the living room, an opened cookbook and unbaked tray of cookies lie on a kitchen counter.

Perry confessed to the murders after he and Burkett were captured in a shootout with police, but talking to Herzog, he proffers the usual death-row claims of complete innocence and Christian salvation. Herzog ignores this tactic. “When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you,” he tells Perry. “But I respect you and you are a human being, and I think that human beings should not be executed as simply as that.” As a treatise against capital punishment, the movie never really goes much farther than that, and the subsequent story of three people being brutally snuffed for no other reason than a joy ride in a convertible may provoke even the most ardent opponent of the death penalty. Herzog interviews Adam’s sister, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, who explains, “When your whole family is ripped from you, you’re kind of like, ‘What’s the point of living anymore? I don’t have a family to share it with.’ . . . I just shut down, really. My grandmother shut down. Our lives are very empty.” Just before Perry was executed, she recalls in dismay, he told the assembled witnesses that he forgave them.

Herzog also interviews Jason Burkett, who pleaded guilty, was tried separately, and received a life sentence after his father made a heartfelt plea to the jury. The disparity in the two sentences functions much as the Carlos De Luna execution does in At the Death House Door, raising the issue of how the death penalty can be just when the justice system itself is so flawed. But Herzog also follows Burkett’s story in a strange new direction. Burkett’s father, Delbert, lives across the street from him in another unit, serving a 40-year sentence, and his brother Chris is also incarcerated; father and sons celebrated Thanksgiving together in prison. You couldn’t ask for a more depressing tableau of crime breeding more crime. Yet in the movie’s last ten minutes Herzog introduces Melyssa Burkett, who married Jason in a prison ceremony and now claims to be carrying his child. (Herzog surmises that she was artificially inseminated with semen smuggled out of the unit.) An ultrasound image of the fetus, proudly displayed by Melyssa on her smartphone, reminds us that no one is born guilty.

When Governor Perry was asked at the debate whether he ever struggled with the notion that he may have executed an innocent man, he replied, “No sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all. . . . If you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.” But to someone as familiar with prison as Carroll Pickett, the ultimate justice isn’t death but life without parole. As he notes in At the Death House Door, prison is an endless tunnel of “mind-numbing routine, grinding loneliness,” and he claims many of his condemned men preferred lethal injection. The only thing worse than crossing through the death house door might be to stand there forever, knocking without an answer.