‘When that door clangs, it’s either someone ready to die or someone’s just been murdered by Texas’
Kimberly McCarthy, who died by execution last Wednesday. Photograph: Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Reuters
In the northeast corner of the Huntsville Unit prison complex, Texas’s death chamber blends into other, larger red-brick buildings. It is known as the death house, its ominous name a contrast to its unassuming presence: one storey high and seven cells long, with an execution chamber and an adjacent visitors chamber that holds about 30 people.
Kimberly McCarthy (52) was the latest inmate to walk through the heavy iron door of the death house. Because her execution on Wednesday was the 500th in Texas since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1982, it drew increased attention from protesters and the media, but it was just another execution for prison officials.
“Our job is to carry out sentences ordered by the courts,” a spokesman from the Texas department of criminal justice told The Irish Times.
McCarthy was the eighth person executed in Texas this year and the 18th in the US. She was also the first woman in the US to be executed in nearly three years, having been convicted of the 1997 killing of Dorothy Booth (71).
As 6pm, the hour for the execution hour, approached, some 40 protesters outside the prison began to sing the old spiritual Wade in the Water. Counter- demonstrators expressing support for the death penalty huddled nearby. McCarthy was pronounced dead after execution by lethal injection at 6.37 pm.
Like all Texas death-row inmates, she had served time ahead of execution at a facility more than 40 miles away from Huntsville. She arrived at the original death house at dawn, to spend the last 12 hours of her life in cell number one.
“Sometimes they had visitors so they could leave the cell, but they were mostly confined to it and, as chaplain, I was the company they kept that day,” says Dr Carroll Pickett, the former prison chaplain at Huntsville death house. He is referring to his encounters with many prisoners over the years who spent their final hours there.
“I never met any of them before that day . . . and I didn’t pass judgment. I believed everybody needed to die with a friend. I felt that God had called me to be that for those people.”
Dr Pickett was the subject of a 2008 documentary, At the Death House Door. In the opening sequence he pulled boxes full of tapes from a cupboard in his home in Kerrville, describing how he made a tape of after each execution. “I had to talk to somebody,” he recounts.
There were 95 tapes, one for every inmate he walked to the death chamber during his 15 years at Huntsville.
Almost a decade after retirement, Dr Pickett describes vivid details about those last days. “The doors locked every time they shut and there was a very loud clang. I still dream of that a lot, because when that door clangs, it’s either someone ready to die or someone’s just been murdered by Texas.”
Dr Pickett now works with advocacy groups like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “The person being executed is not the person who committed the crime – people change, I changed to really realise that,” he says.
Public opinion in Texas, however, is still heavily pro-capital punishment. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed that 73 per cent support it while 21 per cent oppose.
Nonetheless, Dr Pickett professes hope. “When I look at the 18 states who do not impose capital punishment, I believe one day, though not in my lifetime, we will not suffer this system.”