HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS — A number of U.S. states have taken steps to limit the death penalty over fears that innocent people may have already been executed. But not Texas, which has put to death more than 500 people since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1982. The former chaplain of the Huntsville state prison, the busiest execution chamber in the country, has some strong thoughts on the situation.
“Okay, nobody’s been in here before, but this is part of the tapes,” said Reverend Carroll Pickett.
There are ghosts in Pickett’s closet. Ninety-five to be exact.
That’s the number of inmates put to death while he was chaplain at the Texas state execution chamber in Huntsville.
“I made the tapes the next day, or the next night, to get it all out,” he said. “He admitted he was nervous, and it showed in many ways that he was scared.”
Change of heart
Pickett keeps a scrapbook of the 1974 prison siege that killed two employees who belonged to his church. He was a Presbyterian minister and was already a prison chaplain when Texas reinstated executions in 1982. He favored the death penalty until execution number 33, Carlos DeLuna.
“He had big eyes. Big brown eyes. He was innocent. I knew he was innocent. I knew by talking to him and listening to him,” said Pickett.
DeLuna was convicted for the fatal stabbing of a gas station attendant.
But Pickett believes it was a case of mistaken identity. And while he promised DeLuna his death would be painless, it was far from that.
“It was horrible. I couldn’t sleep for days and days,” he said.
Pickett came out against the death penalty after retiring in 1995. He is now a powerful voice in the movement to abolish it.
Protesters, like Gloria Rubac and relatives of a convict being put to death here, wait outside the Huntsville death house where Pickett worked.
The clock shows the wrong time, but inside, the execution is being carried out like clockwork.
This video provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows the execution chamber where a condemned inmate is strapped down. At 6 p.m., if there's no last-minute injunction, a lethal injection is administered.
Petitioning for change
There were massive protests right here in front of the death house, back when Pickett attended his first execution. Now the death of number 505 Arturo Diaz draws only a committed core of anti-death penalty activists, including a group from a local Catholic church.
“When we execute, we take away the possibility of redemption," said Kelly Epstein, a Catholic protester.
The Rev. Fred Valone of St. Thomas Catholic Church believes change is coming.
“Well you know I think, state by state, people are realizing that the death penalty is against our moral fiber,” he said.
But not Texas Governor Rick Perry. He supports the death penalty and says Texas has never executed an innocent person.
Pickett disagrees. “I was a witness to a murder in the name of the state.”
“The family has just come out of the death house and Texas has another notch on their belt,” said one woman, talking on her mobile phone.
After it’s over, everyone goes home. This is a town, however, that's defined by what just happened.
A local restaurant sells what it calls a Killer Burger.
And across town, at the prison museum, the implements of death are on display.
Huntsville resident Richie Harris said he’s familiar with the moral arguments against capital punishment.
“I agree that ‘who are we to judge’ and I understand that. But it’s also important to understand that if you kill a man, and it’s proven that you have killed him, he deserves the death sentence in the state of Texas,” said Harris.
Harris and his family are a few blocks from the death house. They came to see a high school parade.
It has only been about an hour since the execution, and this could be virtually any town in America - if it weren’t its death penalty capital.