When the Supreme Court ruled last month that Kentucky's lethal-injection execution protocol was constitutional, lifting a nationwide execution moratorium, the Rev. Carroll Pickett was one of the most disappointed men in America.

Pickett has observed 95 lethal-injection executions. Execution-day ministering was part of his job from 1982 to 1995, as prison chaplain at the Walls prison unit in Huntsville, Texas, but he is an outspoken adversary of the death penalty.

The first time he saw the injection procedure misfire came in 1989 when Texas executed a man who is now almost universally believed to be innocent. The moving story of the case, and moreover Pickett's story, is presented tonight on cable's Independent Film Channel at 9 p.m. From the makers of the Oscar-nominated

Hoop Dreams

, it's called

At the Death House Door


(The network is available on most, but not all, Comcast regional systems, usually at channel 91 or 164.)

"I really would like to see all nine members of the Supreme Court go watch an execution," Pickett said in a telephone interview this week.

"Walk with the person through the door of the death chamber, watch them be strapped down - especially where you have to insert different needles when the first ones don't work - and watch, and tell me that that's not cruel and unusual punishment.

"I don't think America would be proud of it. I don't think Texans would be proud of it. I know I am not proud of it."

Three people - Kevin Green in Virginia, Earl Wesley Berry in Mississippi, and William Earl Lynd in Georgia - have already been executed since April 16, when the Supreme Court lifted a

de facto

stay invoked last fall when it agreed to hear the Kentucky case.

Pennsylvania, at 228, has the fourth-largest number of inmates on death row of any state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but no scheduled executions. Texas, ranking third on the list behind California and Florida, with 370 inmates, has responded most aggressively to the end of the moratorium: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice lists 11 executions scheduled this summer.

Their crimes are horrible: One man raped a woman and killed her and her 2-year-old son. Another killed his adoptive parents and stole their money and jewelry.

The Pew Research Center regularly finds that a majority, between 62 percent and 68 percent, of Americans support the death penalty.

"Americans like to live with retaliation," said Pickett. Texans, he said, support the vigorous death-house agenda because "we still live here with the mentality that founded the Wild, Wild West. . . . The judicial system is very strong, and we give out the hardest punishment convicts can get. We think that's what makes the people happy."

Pickett, a Presbyterian minister, was a staunch death-penalty advocate when he was called, in extraordinary circumstances detailed in the movie, to the prison ministry. His grandfather had been murdered, and his father, a strong disciplinarian, instilled this philosophy in his son: "Hang 'em fast. Hang 'em high."

As he had increasing personal contact with the criminals and the death procedures, his opinion changed. He had always kept it to himself, first because he felt advocating for the death penalty would lose him the confidence of his inmate flock, and then because advocating against it would lose him his job, of which the death watch was only one facet.

"Jesus says thou shall not kill. Period. [But] God doesn't believe that anybody should die alone . . . I also worked in the hospital, where hundreds of inmates were dying, but I'm not in favor of cancer, and I'm not in favor of AIDS."

He retired from the Texas Department of Corrections 12 years ago, at the age of 62.

Fighting the death penalty, he said, is a different calling. "I think this is still a ministry, to speak to as many people as I can minister to."

The producer/directors, Steve James and Peter Gilbert, set out to film the story of a wrongly executed inmate, but when they interviewed Pickett, they knew that their story must change.

At the Death House Door

is a personal portrait of a good man's struggle with great matters. Intimate and intense, it's one of this season's most powerful TV presentations.

Jonathan Storm:


At the Death House Door

Tonight at 9 on IFC