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At the Death House Door cover image

At the Death House Door 2009

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Peter Gilbert and Steve James
Directed by Peter Gilbert and Steve James
DVD, color, 98 min.

Sr. High - Adult
Criminal Justice, Death and Dying, Ethics, Journalism, Religious Studies, Sociology

Date Entered: 12/17/2009

ALA Notable: ALA.gif
Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

At the Death House Door is a film about the 15-year career of Reverend Carroll Pickett. He served as Protestant prison chaplain at the Huntsville Unit of the Texas State Penitentiary from 1980 to 1995. During this tenure, Pickett counseled and accompanied 95 death-row inmates through their lethal-injection executions, performing what he calls a “ministry of presence.” The documentary is a nuanced look at the criminal justice system from Pickett’s uniquely experienced and personal point of view. Early in his career, two of Pickett’s parishioners are killed in a prison siege; at that time he is for the death penalty. Beginning with the execution of Charlie Brooks, Jr. in 1982, the chaplain starts a cassette tape journal of his impressions of each execution. His wife observes that “those tapes must be his tears.” The personal toll exacted by his chaplaincy career is documented by the audio journal and also by interviews with his adult children.

Pickett is particularly haunted by the execution of inmate Carlos De Luna, whom he believes was wrongfully convicted. The film documents the investigative work of Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maury Possley as they try to prove De Luna’s innocence. The segments featuring De Luna’s sister Rose Rhoton are particularly moving. The camera conveys her emotional turmoil some 19 years after the execution. And Pickett’s turmoil and transformation are evident as well. In his retirement years, Pickett is working with Rhoton and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The film is a thoughtful examination of the ethics of the death penalty through the life stories of Carroll Pickett and Carlos De Luna. It is highly recommended for criminal justice, ethics, journalism, religious studies, social issues, and sociology curricular support. It will catalyze and enhance any discussion of capital punishment, pro or con. Awards

  • Full Frame Film Festival, Inspiration Award, 2008
  • Atlanta Film Festival, Best Documentary Feature, 2008