At the Death House Door



South by Southwest

AUSTIN -- The documentary makers behind "Hoop Dreams" and "Stevie" turn their lens on capital punishment in "At the Death House Door," an involving film with fresh perspectives that should ensure appeal on the activist and festival circuits.

Basically a conversion story, it centers on Carroll Pickett, a proud and righteous jailhouse chaplain in Huntsville, Texas, who sticks with a troubling job -- in almost 100 executions, he has sat with condemned men during their final hours -- despite a growing conviction that the death penalty should be abolished.

Pickett's self-administered therapy through the years has been an audio diary: cases full of audiocassettes that he makes after each execution. As he picks through the tapes, Pickett recalls details that stirringly drive home his unique perspective.

The filmmakers alternate Pickett's tale with that of a man executed on his watch: Carlos De Luna, who seems now almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he was condemned.

The investigation into his wrongful conviction (conducted by Chicago Tribune reporters) has blood-boiling dramatic potential, but the filmmakers play this angle down, using it mainly to bolster Pickett's recent anti-death-penalty activism.

The result is a picture whose appeal might not be as broad as some of the team's earlier work (or of Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line") but is strong enough in its content that it could sway fence-sitters on the issue.

Independent Film Channel
Kartemquin Films
Director-producers: Steve James, Peter Gilbert
Executive producers: Gordon Quinn, Christine Lubrano, Debbie DeMontreux, Evan Shapiro, Alison Bourke
Director of photography: Peter Gilbert
Music: Leo Sidran
Co-producer: Zak Piper
Editors: Steve James, Aaron Wickenden
Running time -- 98 minutes
No MPAA rating