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"At the Death House Door"

What with the crashing economy, the North Koreans having a nutty and Iran melting down - to name just a few of the crises spinning at the moment - the status of the death penalty would seem to be near the bottom of President Obama's list of priorities. Nonetheless, he'll have no choice but to take a stand on the issue pretty soon, since the cases of six federal death row inmates will probably see their stays of executions expire in the next few months.

Then Obama, who has the authority to pardon them or not, will have to decide whether they live or die.

"The death penalty in the abstract is one thing," says Dianne Rust-Tierney of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty to "Politico." "The reality of the death penalty and all of its nasty details is a very different thing."

Perhaps the president might want to prep himself for this decision by watching Steve James and Peter Gilbert's ("Hoop Dreams") wrenching, sublimely restrained and expertly crafted documentary, "At the Death House Door,"  which will be released by Facets Video tomorrow. It concerns, in part, the strange career of Rev. Carroll Pickett, who served as the Death Row chaplain at the Huntsville, Texas prison, ushering condemned prisoners through the last 12 hours of their lives.

Pickett's first experience at the prison traumatized him. In 1974, inmates took several civilian workers hostage. Among them were two of his parishioners. He watched them get gunned down in a bloody shootout.

In 1982, six years after the Supreme Court had reinstated the death penalty, Huntsville Prison was in the business of executing people. Pickett, then the prison chaplain and a compelling force for good who had already changed the lives of many prisoners through his ministry and his choir, was enlisted into the "Lethal Injection Team" as the person who would accompany the condemned through his (or her; one victim was a woman) last day, offering them comfort and consolation and, as the warden put it, "seduce" their emotions so they wouldn't "fight" when they had to walk that last 8 feet to be strapped to a gurney and put to death.

Given the murders of his parishioners in 1974, Pickett initially, if abstractly - had no problem with the death penalty. His leather-tough Texas dad used to say "hang them fast and hang them high." But he discovered, as Rust-Tierney noted above, that the reality is different. He was so shaken by the experience that he made a tape recording of his feelings and impressions after each execution. Thirteen years and 95 executions later, including that of one man, Carlos DeLuna, whom he was certain was innocent, Pickett was no longer in favor of capital punishment. Anyone who watches this film will be hard-pressed to support it, either.


Be assured that the film is no screed, but a subtle and complex interweaving of themes and narratives - including the investigative crusade of two "Chicago Tribune" reporters seeking to posthumously establish DeLuna's innocence ("that's what newspapers are for," says one, reminding us what the big deal about print journalism was all about). At the heart of the film is the unforgettable, calmly tragic and utterly compassionate Pickett and his briefcase full of shattering recorded memories.

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