16 Nov 2009

Texas death row chaplain opposes capital punishment

Kerry Max Cook served over 20 years in a Texas prison — most of them on death row. But as DNA evidence would show in 1999, he was innocent. That year, Mr. Cook was released from prison with the help of Princeton-based Centurion Ministries, a secular non-profit that works for the release of innocent prisoners.

”He was a nice guy. I never felt he was guilty,” said Rev. Carroll Pickett, a former death-house chaplain at the Huntsville prison in Texas, who spoke at Princeton Theological Seminary last week.Addressing an audience of about 30 activists and seminarians, Rev. Pickett called Mr. Cook “a victim of Texas justice” but then added: “Throw that out—there’s no such thing as Texas justice.”
”As a Christian, I cannot support the death penalty,” Rev. Pickett said. I used to be in favor of the death penalty because my grandfather was murdered and nothing was done about it. My father taught me, you gotta hang ‘em fast, hang ‘em high. That’s Texas,” he said, in a slow drawl. “But then I went to work at the prison.”

His first day was April 1, 1980. Six inmates came to chapel, out of a prison population of 2200. Frustrated, Rev. Pickett tried to find ways to reach out to the men, who he said had, on average, a seventh grade education. The answer was music. Among other programs, he started several choirs, which drew the inmates to chapel. As he described it, being a prison chaplain was “full time ministry.”