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VIRGINIA RAYMOND: We were talking about something during the break. I don't know where you want to start—
DAVID ATWOOD: Well, let's talk about maybe just a little bit on the subject of mental illness and the death penalty because we do not— there's no exclusion
now for people with serious mental illness with the death penalty, and I think there really should be. The Supreme Court stopped the execution of people who are mentally retarded because
of saying that they're not as culpable as somebody who is not mentally retarded.
But what about people who are seriously mentally ill? It seems like the same concept fits. And, so that should be—I mean of course I want to see the
whole death penalty abolished and done away with. I think that's the real answer. But sometimes you do these things in steps. And we should not be executing the seriously mentally ill
Now we had a really wonderful opportunity back in—a number of years ago. I can't—I don't know if I can remember what year it was but—where we were
contacted by this photographer from Switzerland, Fabian Biasio, about would you like to have my photographs of Tina Duroy shown in an art exhibit in Texas.
And I had attended a press—maybe I even set it up, I can't recall—but a press conference on James Colburn's case earlier than that. But that I think had been
a few years before. He was executed. And then when this photographer contacted us I said, "Well, we're looking for any opportunity to educate the public." And so it was quite a bit of
We did it with the local Amnesty International group here in Houston and got some other groups to join in with us. And we had—and we brought over his
photo exhibit and had it at a local museum. And that's when I first met
Tina, of course. We had a—we also set up a panel to discuss the whole subject of
executing people who are seriously mentally ill.
That was the beginning of, I think, this current sort of movement that's happening now of really working toward excluding mentally ill people, seriously
mentally ill people, from the death penalty. We've executed a number of people who are paranoid schizophrenic and it's just not right. And so that exhibit and that discussion was a, I
think, a wonderful start. Amnesty picked up on it, did some work, published some reports.
And now, we also—Kristen Houle came down and has been working in our office in Austin on this subject matter. She got a Soros Foundation Fellowship for that.
And so that pushed it along. And now the—and we worked with the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill. And now they're gonna have this program up in San Antonio with murder victims'
families for human rights and the NAMI, National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, to talk about this more, about this subject more.
And so I—it's been good to sort of—you see these things sort of develop over time. People pick up on it in different ways when they have an opportunity to do
so, which is what we did here. And I really hope—I really need to do something about this because somebody who is paranoid schizophrenic and we've got—and we've executed many of them.
We've got more on death row and they should be excluded just automatically from the death penalty. And it can be done. There are professional diagnosis
of people with these problems and they should be in a mental institution. That's what they should be in—a mental health hospital for treatment.
We went through all this with Andrea Yates. That whole Andrea Yates case, which is a similar situation. She ultimately go—tin a second trial got committed to
a hospital which should have happened during the first trial. But what we do in our work to abolish the death penalty, while ultimately abolition of the death penalty is our goal, total
abolition, sometimes you do work in certain areas to try make some progress.
And the execution of the seriously mentally ill is something that we should stop right now. I think the Supreme Court should intervene and just say, "Nah,
we're not gonna do this anymore," and set up some guidelines and tell the state, "Stop it."
RAYMOND: Before we had to change this tape you were starting to say that you think there's a difference between Texas officials and what regular—
RAYMOND: And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that?
ATWOOD: Yeah, I think that what I've seen is that over time most of the work that we've done has been educating citizens. We try to educate politicians, too,
but many times they're very set in their ways in what and they think is— they need to do. And they also have this political thing about being tough on crime and so they don't wanna—they
wanna show they're strong on the death penalty.
What we've seen—and we've had some polls here in Houston, in particular, that have demonstrated this is that support for the death penalty among the people
is dropping. And I'd like to see a statewide poll, and some polls in other Texas cities that would show this. We've certainly seen it in Houston, that when you offer the alternatives
in terms of punishment, like a long prison sentence or life without parole, the citizens will often choose those alternatives.
Because I don't think the citizens of Texas are bloodthirsty people. They're interested in having a safe society, as everybody is. And they would be
concerned if somebody was given a prison sentence and then got out and did something bad again, just like anybody would. So they want safety, but they're not necessarily bloodthirsty, calling
for blood in terms of the death penalty.
So I think the citizens are changing. And I think the citizens would accept, at this point, an alternative punishment in place of the death penalty. Now we
do have, back in 2005 life without parole was passed in the state as an alternative punishment. I'd like to see life without parole as the punishment for capital murder, or at least one of
the options—not—and take the death penalty totally off the books. And I think a lot of people in the state would go along with that.
The officials, on the other hand, the people who are in power right now, at least, the governors that we've had, a lot of legislators want this—and the
district attorneys, and a lot of the judges who are also elected. All these people are elected. Everybody who runs this criminal justice system are elected officials. They seem to
want to keep the death penalty—the ones that are in power right now.
And so I think that the death penalty in Texas right now is perpetuated by these politicians more than the citizens of the state. I really do. And—well,
what does that mean? That means that if we're going to have a big change in Texas, we're going to have to have a different set of politicians to make it happen, because the people that are in
power right now, I don't think want to make that change and won't make that change.
RAYMOND: And yet you talk about, this is not—this is something intentioned (inaudible)—not a contradiction, but in your book you identify a number
of reasons why Texas is more ambitious or exuberant or active in actually executing people than other places. And you also point out that both Charlie Baird and Morris Overstreet were not
ATWOOD: Right, right.
RAYMOND: to the Court of Criminal Appeals, so—
ATWOOD: I think that was the—there had been those factors. I think when I—when some of those things, even when they weren't re-elected to office,
the—Overstreet and Charlie Baird—I think that was a number of years ago. I don't know what year it was when they—that happened but early 2000s maybe. I think—I—some of the changes I'm talking
about is what I'm seeing in the last even five or six years.
There are factors in Texas—in the make-up of Texas that have promoted the death penalty. There's no getting around it. I mean historically, we would hang
people that didn't even commit murder, right? I mean that's part of our history. We have the history of the south here, the attitudes towards African Americans and even Mexican people. If
they got out of line, they were often hung.
So there is this history, but I think that that history is more and more becoming a thing of—it really is becoming history. It's more a thing of the
past because, for one thing, we're getting a lot of different people moving into this state, from other states and from other parts of the world. And we especially see it in cities like
Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas—places—the big cities in particular you see that.
And so there are—another factor that has gone, I think that when it comes from the people, it has to a certain extent—and still does—promote the death
penalty, quite frankly, is the attitude of the Southern Baptist Church. And I'm not afraid to name the Southern Baptist Church. It is—they're the only large Christian denomination that I'm
aware of that really promotes—has official teaching in favor of the death penalty.
And the Southern Baptists have a lot of influence in the south, including Texas. And so when somebody goes to church on Sunday in a Southern Baptist church,
they're not gonna hear anything against the death penalty. But I think those voice are getting fewer and fewer. Not that the Southern Baptist—well, even within the Baptist church we have
the Baptist Convention of Texas now, which has come out for a moratorium on executions.
So this is not all Baptists; this is just a certain segment of Baptists. But they've had a strong voice. They still do have a strong voice. I tell
people every now and then one of the strongest proponents of the death penalty in Houston, Harris County, has been the District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. He just left, but he—and people
say, "Chuck Rosenthal, well he must be Jewish." Well no, Chuck Rosenthal went to the Southern—to Second Baptist Church here. Southern Baptist! He was Southern Baptist.
And so there are those voices out there. There are those influences that have been pretty strong and still are strong in places. There are a lot of
conservative people in Texas. But I don't necessarily associate somebody being conservative with being in support of the death penalty, necessarily. There are conservative people who
are fiscally conservative, or just conservative, but they're not gonna be a big, necessarily, a big supporter of the death penalty.
Because one of the things about being conservative is that you don't really trust big government. And we've got plenty of experience that shows that our big
government can make mistakes. Seems like that's more obvious everyday. And then—and we've certainly had many mistakes on the death penalty, getting the wrong person.
So, when I say I think Texas is changing and with people that have moved in and people that have moved around, and people becoming more educated, giving them
an alternative, like life without parole, I think the state is changing. But I don't see, quite frankly, the real—what I call the right wing politicians giving up on the death penalty
soon. Maybe ultimately they will, but not soon.
RAYMOND: It's really interesting and when—I really appreciate at the beginning of the book where you talk about being in a conference I guess in D.C. or
somewhere on the east coast and having everybody bash Texas—[inaudible] and having to say to them, look it's not all of us. And yet the question remains, why Texas? And when I hear that
Texas, I—when I hear that—when that question occurs, I also think, why Harris County?
RAYMOND: And you've mentioned one reason. The now former, or district attorney, or about to be—I don't know if it's—he's already stepped down—
ATWOOD: Yeah, he's stepped down.
RAYMOND: Yeah, he's down, Rosenthal, but certainly he's been a factor. But what is it about Harris County do you think that it makes it a leader of death
ATWOOD: I think, primarily, it has been the district attorneys that we have had and the support that they've gotten from right wing elements in the
county. It wasn't only Rosenthal. It was Johnny Holmes before him and even the district attorney before him, I think, who really embraced the death penalty, and really—We have also, of
course, all our judges here are former—worked in the district attorney's office. All of them. All of them are Republican. All of them support the death penalty.
So you've had a criminal justice system here, take the D.A. and the judges that have just had this strong pro-death penalty bias. And they've had—and of
course, overall Houston, with a strong business community, is a rather conservative community—Houston, Harris County. Not so much the city, but when you take in the suburbs and the more
rural areas. So they could do this. They could actually do this. And I think a lot of the people were not even—hardly even sensitive or aware that it was going on.
Myself, I lived here, I moved here in seventy-two, and ‘course we didn't have the death penalty in seventy-two. That wasn't being carried out. But when
it came back in eighty-two—I was here from eighty-two to like I say the late eighties, working for the Shell Oil Company and we started executing people and I can say I wasn't even aware of it.
And I think that's the way for a lot of citizens. They're focused on their family. They're focused on their job. Just the stuff, everyday kind of stuff that they're dealing with. And they
don't think about these issues.
And so people who are in power, if they want to push a certain agenda, can do it if they don't get a lot of push back from the community. And like I said, a
lot of people aren't paying attention. Really.
RAYMOND: And yet the D.A.s and judges seem to think—or something is making them be so protective of the death penalty.
ATWOOD: Well, I think it's partly—there's probably a number of things that go into it. Partly it is that they think that that will help them get reelected if
they are. That may be most of it right there. That they can—it's a way they think—I'll support the death penalty, that's the way I'll get—and probably a number of them
have again—probably a bunch of them are Southern Baptists. I don't know for sure. I haven't done that kind of an analysis. But they're not all Southern Baptists. That's for
sure.They—I think it's more to do with—I think something has developed in Texas, too.
I don't know if anybody's tried to measure this, but there's something.The Republican Party in Texas has sort of said in a way that we're gonna embrace the
death penalty. I don't know why, necessarily, but they pretty much go in lock step with one another. There aren't too many independent thinkers. And actually part of the overall scenario
too is that the Democrats have not really—up until recent years have not been that strongly against it. Sometimes you can't tell a conservative Democrat that much different from a moderate
RAYMOND: Even Ann Richards.
ATWOOD: Yeah. So. But I—but overall I think it's changing. I think—we're gonna—we're hoping to see changes in the—in Harris County in this next election. We
hope we'll get a new District Attorney that'll have a different attitude. We're hoping to get some judges in. Traditionally, the Democrats haven't even run judges in the races. Now I think
they're gonna run some judges. I think we'll get some judges with some different attitudes.
I think the people are waking up more and more because of a lot of news that's been in the paper about wrong people being on Death Row, and wrong people
being in prison, innocent people in prison. So there's been a lot of waking up that's, I think, taking place by the average citizens—sort of a movement, a slow-moving kind of movement
that's taking place where things—change is gonna happen.
And a lot of people, I mean you think about in Houston. I mean, people from other countries that live here. It's just—it's not like a few hundred, it's
thousands and thousands of people from other countries that live here now and they become citizens and they vote. And many times they have different attitudes on these things. So the Old
South is sort breaking up in a way. It really is. And I think that's good myself. Some of the old attitudes need to go. They really do need to go.
I—many times I have—I've done a lot of study of apartheid in South Africa and I see the—that some of the same—not that we have the apartheid here in the same
sense or the racism in the same sense that they had it in South Africa, but in some of the attitudes of people, officials, you see similar kinds of attitudes. I remember one time I was at
the state legislature, and a politician got up and he was justifying the death penalty by quoting the Old Testament.
I was sitting there listening to him and I was saying, this guy just needs to replace the word death penalty with slavery and it's the same language. It's
the same mentality, the same language, the same way of trying to justify it. And it's—but those—there are people that still have those attitudes, that are still in power many times. But I
think they're going away. And the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned. Sooner the better. And so we'll hopefully have some big changes.
RAYMOND: I want to move back, if it's okay with you, to sort of the nitty-gritty. You've talked a lot about family members, both family members of people
who've been condemned and family members who have lost somebody to murder. And I wonder if you could talk—you've visited Death Row; sounds like you've been at the Hospitality House in
Huntsville? I wonder if you could talk about what that is actually like. If—I mean, you are not a family member, but perhaps you've witnessed what happens, what it's like to visit or what
it's like to be at the Hospitality House.
ATWOOD: Well, it's a place that I don't like to go very often, quite frankly, because if I go to the Hospitality House that probably means that somebody is
scheduled for execution and I'm there because he wanted me there or his family wanted me there. And probably the chances are that the execution will take place more often than not. And
it's usually a place of—for me it's just a sad place to be.
I've been there—I've been between the Hospitality House and just being out in front of the prison during a vigil, I've been there way too many
times. I've just—and I've seen—it's hard for me, but to be there with those families, who are having somebody in their family—a husband or a brother or a son or daughter, whoever executed.
The pain that they're going through, it just—it seeps into you. And if it happens many times, it's so hard.
I used to go up to just about to every execution vigil, even if I didn't know the person. I'd go up there and stand at the prison and as a vigil and as a
protest. But I don't do that as much as I used to. I will always go if I'm asked to go. We also have a vigil here in Houston that we have for people that can't go. But to me what has
happened over time because there's been so many, is that it's just become more and more difficult for me to go up there and to be there and to see that pain again and again and again of family
Sometimes the pain of the family of the victim, too, because sometimes they'll be over there too, but more often the person being executed. It just about
becomes unbearable to do that. And I will go if somebody asks me to for some reason. Just like if somebody asks me to actually witness an execution, like we had Karl Rodenberg asked me to
do that—from Germany—asked me to that one time because he had one of his friends that was being executed.
And as far as he knew he was the only person that this—the prisoner had asked to be there as his friend. And Karl had never been at an execution before and
so he asked me if I'd just be there with him, inside, at the execution. And I did it ‘cause—as a thing of friendship. But it just—it really wears on you. And it—and I know it wears on
other people, too. I know it wears on the prison staff, on the wardens, on the people that are actually carrying this out. They're not all for the death penalty up there.
I've had—I had a guard one time coming up—come up to me. I was standing by that yellow tape that they put in front of the prison during an execution,
and I had a guard come up and he just saw me standing there. He'd probably seen me there before. And he said—he just came up and whispered in my ear, he says, "There are many, many of us
inside who are against what's going on here." He says, "We can't stand publicly. We would lose our job." There are former wardens who are against the death penalty.
Some of them have been reluctant to speak out, like Reverend Carol Pickett spoke out after being Chaplain there for many years. He spoke up but he knows
there's a price he's going to have to pay. I mean he doesn't live in Huntsville anymore. There's a reason for that. I mean he became like a persona non grata to the prison system, to the
officials in the prison system—not all the people, but the officials after he spoke out against the death penalty. So if a warden does that, a former warden, that same thing's gonna happen
And so—but a number of them are against the death penalty, and they've told how this just really is not good for the soul. That's all there is to it for
anybody. Now we have—sometimes we've had people involved in our movement against the death penalty who have had somebody on death row, like a son or daughter, or somebody—uncle, and
they've been coming to our meetings, been very active, and what I usually anticipate after, if their family member is executed, is that they will drop off after that. And it's very
Sometimes there'll be a rare person who will stay in it, stay involved. But usually the pain has been so tremendous that they just need to get on with
their lives. They need to move forward with their lives. And that means not being involved in the movement anymore. It's very understandable that they would want to have a change. Now
sometimes, we like—I became very good friends with Guy and Ursula Landrum, whose son Anthony—their grandson Anthony was executed.
And we have dinner with them every now and then because we were so close, but not with the intensity that we were doing at one time. So, there's just so much
pain involved in this. The death penalty victimizes really everybody. It certainly—at least the person being executed, that person's family. In a way it really does victimize the families
of the crime victims because for one thing they've been promised that this is going to bring closure or healing to them and it doesn't happen.
They've had to wait maybe ten or fifteen years for this execution to take place. It's been like a roller coaster for them. And then sometimes they get
up to the time when it's supposed to happen and it doesn't happen because of some change in the law or something. And so they experience this roller coaster ride, frustration, and then they
don't get closure. The people in the prison system who have to do this every time. The citizens of the state who this is all being done in their name, really.
It's costing millions and millions of dollars to do, which if that money were used for prevention it would be so much better for the people of the
state. So, and as far as I can see, like I said before, this is being pushed by almost like right wing ideology, at this point, in the state by officials that embrace that. And so
they're doing a lot of harm in my opinion to Texas and to the people of Texas with this mentality that they have that pushes the death penalty.
RAYMOND: I know that this is extremely painful, but you—so if you don't want to answer, don't, of course.
RAYMOND: You have witnessed, you witnessed James Allridge—
RAYMOND: and Dominique Green's—
ATWOOD: Right, and one other person.
RAYMOND: And then one other person. Can you tell us, or will you tell us about those executions, what it was actually like to witness them?
ATWOOD: Yeah. The first one was James and that was August of 2004. The three that I've witnessed were all in 2004. And, with James, the real agony begins
when you visit the person on that last day.
For me—you're—They transport the person to be executed over from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston to the Walls Unit in Huntsville in the afternoon. He can
visit family and friends up ‘til twelve noon.
But the most, the pain really begins—I mean you're visiting—you know it's the last time. First of all, you're going to be able to visit this person. And he
And he knows that it's going to be the last time that he really gets to say anything to his family, particularly his family.
And you're sitting there that morning of the day of the execution and having this last visit, and then at twelve noon the guards come and knock on the door
of the cage and say, "That's it." And they take him out. And they handcuff him and take him out.
And you know—and just the look on their face when they know that this is their last visit is—and so—and then you usually do something, get a bite to eat or
something. And then you drive yourself over to Huntsville.
And you end up usually going to that Hospitality House. And he can, the prisoner can make some last moment telephone calls over there. And then you, if
you're gonna witness the execution, there's a chaplain who will advise you what's going on.
And if you've been there once, you've heard the story. It's always the same. And then I think around five o'clock you go over to the administration building
in front of the prison, the witnesses, and you're escorted all the time. The chaplain is there.
There's usually two guards. And you sit in a room for a while and—up until a little bit before six. A room that's just a—like a—it's like a—there's like a
Coke machine there.
It's just like a—anything—like a little lunchroom, almost, where you get a Coke or get a bite to eat or something. And you just sit there. And you're just
sitting there. And sometimes you talk among yourselves.
But sometimes you're just so despondent about what's gonna happen in a short time, you really don't have any things to say. And the Chaplain's there and he's
trying to be helpful, by saying, "Anything you want to talk about? We can talk about it now."
The people have such deep emotions about what's going on that it's—they're almost beyond words. It's beyond words at that point. And so, then a little bit
before six and they take you out from that building and you go over to the prison as a group.
And then you walk through this one room, and you just usually keep moving back to the little building where the execution chamber is. It's very small. You
don't—it's not a big building at all. It's just a small little building.
And you'll walk through the door, or they escort you, and you are in the area, the observation area for the execution. There are no chairs like you see in
some movies. You stand.
And pull back the screen, and there's the person you know, just laid out on the execution gurney all ready to go. And the needles are in. Everything has
happened before you see him. He's laid out ready to be executed. And that is just horrific to see that.
All you can see as a witness—usually the reporters that are gonna witness it are with you. At least that's been my experience. And so they're there. They're
sort of standing in the back. They're trying to get a comment or something, something for the report.
And with James Allridge, I was there with Sister Helen Prejean, and a couple of his brothers, Bill Pelke, and there were some reporters there.
And when I saw James laid out on that table after knowing him for all those years and knowing he was just a live vibrant human being with tremendous gifts
and talents, and they were about to kill him.
You can't see. And you look in the room and all you see is him on the table. And you see the warden and you see the chaplain. You can't see any of the
witnesses on the other side for the family of the victim. They don't see you either.
All you see is them. Well I saw James I just started—I literally broke down and cried. And I think Sister Helen grabbed my arm or something and said, "It's
okay, Dave." She said, "If you don't cry, you're not human."
That's what I think her comment was. And she'd been to a number of executions, and she didn't know James as well as I did. She—his brothers obviously knew
him the best, and then probably me, and then the other people.
So, he turns his head toward you, sort of like this and gives his last—the warden asks for his last words and he gives his last words. They have a little
microphone up above and he says his last words. And he had—he said some very beautiful things.
And then when it's over, the warden gives some signal. I don't know if he does it the same every time. But one time he'd just take off his glasses and that
would start the execution.
And before, in a very short time, usually, if everything goes right, he's dead. Like James died very quickly. And you sort of hear a sound that is sort of
a—you hear a (sighs). Something like that. (Sighs)
And I guess it's the air going out of their lungs. I don't know. And then he's dead. And then a doctor comes in and certifies that he's dead. And that's it
and then they close the thing and you're out.
It's like almost a—I don't know, it's so routine that for them I guess it's almost—it's just hard to describe. Just—I mean—first time when you see it—that
had the biggest impact on me was James, 'cause it was the first time.
Dominique had a similar impact on me; it wasn't quite as strong because it was the second time. And I guess, if it goes on the third time—wasn't—well, I
didn't know the guy that well.
I knew him, but I didn't know him quite as well as Thomas or James, or James and Dominique. So I can imagine if you did that ten or fifteen, twenty times,
you would get certain immunity to it all, I guess. Oh I think it still would wear on you every time.
But Reverend Pickett talks about it. And then it's done for and they open up the door and you go out. They say, "Come this way" and you stream back across on
to the building across the street to the administration building.
And you can look out, when you're going across that street you can look down and see where the protesters are. That's usually where I've been. And I know the
people that are out there. But it's sort of a—it's like you're in a different world when all that happens.
It's like you've been taken someplace else. It's—When Jim Willett retired as warden—he is now the head of the Texas prison museum—between you and me he's
against the death penalty. He's never spoken out publicly on it.
But he did say when he retired, there was an article in the
Houston Chronicle, and he said, "We're doing something unnatural there." Used that word, unnatural. It sort of hinted—gave you a hint about what he thought.
And that's probably a good word, ‘cause what they're doing is unnatural. I mean, it's evil and it's unnatural. I wish we could get Willett to come on this
publicly. He'd be a very good voice but he hasn't been willing to do it.
And so you're just sort of in a time warp almost, you feel like it just—God. And with Dominique, because of the last minute appeals that were being
considered by the Supreme Court, it didn't all stop it, and it didn't all happen right around six.
Didn't happen ‘til about eight o'clock. And so we were there sitting in that horrible little room with the Coke machine for a couple hours while that was
going on, sort of hoping that maybe something was gonna stop the execution. But it didn't.
And so we just went. We just sat there. We didn't have hardly anything to say to each other. You just—you're so stressed out over what's happening. It's
It's looking at evil like I mentioned before. It's an evil thing that's happening and you're witnessing it. Just like if you were in one of those Nazi
concentration camps where they were killing people. It's an evil thing that's going on there and this is evil.
I don't make that comparison usually because—‘cause people get very upset if you make any comparison like that. But it still is an evil thing that's
And it does remind me a lot of, I don't know—you read about South Africa and apartheid and what happened there and the attitudes of the officials, the
control and domination of a whole segment of their population by certain elements.
There are similarities. There really are. I'm convinced of that. They had the—that Truth and Reconciliation Commission is just a fantastic thing.
I've spoken about that a few times to people here in Texas, and I don't think they get what I'm talking about. I said, "Why don't we do this?"
A lot of people, a lot of families of victims don't—one of the things they would really like is for the person who committed the crime to admit that they
committed the crime and to say they're sorry. That would just go so far for a lot of people.
And a lot of people—a lot of prisoners won't do it because they think right up to almost the last moment, something might happen and they'd be shooting them
self in the foot for doing that.
So why don't we have a truth and reconciliation hearing where if the person who committed the crime will admit to it and tell the truth about what
I don't think we'll ever go as far as South Africa where they didn't even prosecute people that far, but you take the death penalty off the books. It just
goes off the books. Like a plea deal in a way. I plead guilty, you—why don't we just do something like that?
It just seems like everyone would be so much more—it would be more restorative. It would be the restorative kind of justice, rather than retributive justice
that we have now so strongly. But we're not there yet.
I think we're moving in that direction though. I really do. But we're not there yet.
RAYMOND: I read in the book—I don't think in the book that you talk about the third execution that you witnessed specifically, but James was in August and
then October Dominique I think that was—
ATWOOD: Yeah, October was Dominique's. James' was August twenty-sixth, 2004. Dominique was October twenty-sixth. I did a twenty-one-day fast prior to that,
too. And I would go up and sit up in front of the prison.
I do that every now and then. Sometimes under the right circumstances, I'll still do that. I won't—I will go up and just sit there at a time when people
aren't normally there.
I got a chair I pull out of my car, and I got a "Stop Execution" sign, and I'll just sit there with my sign for several hours. I did that during that time
when I was fasting. And I did that for a number of days before the execution in October.
And then in November—let me think. I'm trying to get my dates right. November was when Anthony was executed, which I didn't witness. That was when I was
outside and I did the civil disobedience.
RAYMOND: It doesn't sound like an accident that you'd be moved to civil disobedience after actually seeing these executions—
RAYMOND: Can you tell us about that?
ATWOOD: Well I think it was something that was building, although, like I say in the book, I didn't—I did not—I had not made a conscious decision ahead of
time to do civil disobedience that day.
Now, we tried one time to do a civil disobedience up at Austin. I don't know—I don't think that's in the book. We created this great big banner, which just
said "Stop Executions."
And five of us with Texas Coalition stood in front of the state capitol at those doors at the south side and the banner covered the front doors except for
about this much space. So people could still go in and out and we had—we were standing out there with it.
And we had—and we were planning on getting arrested. We had worked it with the attorney and everything was all planned and our goal was to get arrested.
And we stood out there with this big banner and the police from inside the capitol came out and said, "You guys can't have that banner here. If you don't
move it off we're going to arrest you."
And they're all speaking to me because where they came out the door, there I was. And I said, Well, okay. Come ahead. We're ready. And they'd go back in and
Another hour went by or half hour, say about a half hour, and they come, "All right, we'll get the paddy wagon coming. You guys are gonna be out of here
soon." And I say, Okay, we're ready to go. Went back in.
Came out a third time. I think all together maybe four times. Third time came out and said, "The paddy wagon is here. You either roll this thing up now or
you are out of here." We said, Okay, come arrest us. We're ready to be arrested. And went back in.
And they didn't come out again, now this about over a two-hour period. Finally, we said—we were—we had a certain amount of time we were gonna do this. So
finally, we roll up our banner. Walk in and there are all these capitol police there.
And we said, What's it take to get arrested around here? And they sort of laughed. We said, Aren't you gonna arrest us? They said, "No, we decided not to
And we said, What if we unroll our banner inside here? We really could get in people's way. Will you arrest us then? And they said, "We've decided we are not
gonna arrest you." And they didn't arrest us. We were all set up.
We'd been told that if you're gonna do civil disobedience anywhere, Austin would be the best place. I don't know if that's true or not. But that's what we
were told. And so that's everything we had our attorney say.
The thing up in—with Anthony up in—we were also told where there were two places—two worst places to get arrested and go to the County Jail were Walker
County up in Huntsville, and Smith County up in Tyler, Texas—was the two places you didn't want to do this.
So, of course, I'm up there at Anthony's execution and didn't have plans to do this but I got—we knew—it's because we knew Guy and Ursula Landrum so well,
and I visited the grandson, and both my wife and I were there.
And, of course, I had no discussion with my wife about doing anything like this. And so she's standing on one side of Ursula, and I'm on the other side, and
Ursula just starts trembling and shaking. And Guy was inside with Anthony for the execution.
We were very worried about him because he'd had some heart problems. And we thought it might kill him. And—but Ursula was outside and she was trembling and I
don't know something just inside just motivated me. I said I gotta do something more.
I just gave my sign to one person. Gave my keys, gave my wallet, gave my cell phone, gave everything and Peggy, she's looking at me, What are you doing
stuffing this stuff in my pocket? It was November, so she had on a big winter coat.
And it was pretty cold. And I said, and I—there was a guard right across the tape. And I said, I'm coming across as a protest. And he said, "Well sir, if you
do that you'll be arrested." I said, I know.
And I did it. I went across, lifted up the tape and went under, and, immediately they said—immediately I was arrested and handcuffed. Never been handcuffed
in my life. They held me outside the prison ‘til the execution was completed.
And then I went over—I thought I was gonna be spending that night in jail. I'd never, never been arrested before—hardly ever even got a ticket for a traffic
ticket. And so off I went to the county jail and I was processed, and I thought I was in there for the night.
I didn't know how long I'd be there. But my wife found somebody to bail me out that night. So after about two or three hours they—I was released on
I was—I did the whole thing with the mug shot and everything. I tried to smile for the mug shot, ‘cause you know how those mug shots you look so bad?
Everybody. Terrible. I tried. I said, I'm gonna have a good mug shot.
I looked at it later on and it was horrible. I look like the most dangerous depraved criminal in the world. Like, Don't let this guy move into your
neighborhood. I don't know if they waited until I stopped smiling and then clicked it or what.
But, so anyway, I was bailed out that night, but then I—they set up a trial date and I went and I pled guilty. I was guilty. I didn't see any reason not
pleading guilty to what I'd done cause it was pretty obvious what I'd done.
And, but I was give an opportunity either to have like a $500 dollar fine, or five days in jail. And I said, Well, I just didn't do this so I could pay five
hundred dollars to Walker County here. So I said, "I'll take the five days in jail," which I did.
Just, in the whole scope of things, not a very long time. For me it was a very long, but believe me—five days in the county jail. It was in January. It was
cold. They didn't have heat in the prison.
They issued me a Civil War era blanket that was about paper-thin. I could not get warm. And I learned how to use—you didn't have a pillow. So I learned that
you get one roll of toilet paper, so that was my pillow. Learned how to use toilet paper.
You get—you adapt pretty quickly. But also, it was a crazy place to be. God, I wouldn't wish that on anybody. That's—I was in a tank with eleven other guys,
all younger than me.
They didn't know why I was there. They probably thought I was a vagrant ‘cause I probably looked like one at that point.
And—but after about two days in there, I noticed that all of a sudden there was a change in attitude on the part of the prisoners on me. And what had
happened—I think the Huntsville paper had come out in the meantime, and run an article with my picture about what I'd done.
And some of the prisoners found out about it and realized why I was in there. And—but it's a horrible place to be. You get Kool-Aid to drink, breakfast,
lunch, dinner, food, bad. But the worst thing was being cold.
And then I had—I was on a top bunk in this cell. So I had to climb up and I could climb up all right to get to that top bunk. Getting down was a hard thing.
I didn't have anything to hold onto hardly to get off the top bunk. And—but it was okay.
I mean I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it as a symbolic protest against the death penalty. That's really what I wanted to do it for. And so I felt very
good about doing it. Not that it was pleasant to be there.
And this thing about, you're gonna have a lot of quiet time and you can meditate and you can write and you can read. I didn't have any books. I think
somebody brought me a book, but it never got to me.
The guys that were in jail were so noisy. They had a TV there that was blasting all the time, mostly playing cartoons. It was just like a miserable, wild,
And sleeping. Your hours are totally screwed up on sleeping because a lot of the people, they don't sleep. Or they sleep during the day, and then they are
loud and noisy at night.
So it was nothing—I was glad to get back to my own bed. (Laughs) That was for sure. But I'm glad I did it. And I don't know what—you never know what impact
you have on something like that. But I felt like I had to do it at the time.
RAYMOND: Did you have any trouble getting back in prison to visit people after that happened?
ATWOOD: No. I can't—I think there were more people in and out of the prison system both admired what I did. Even some of the people that were maybe in the
prison system admired it. They could take retribution on if they wanted to, but they didn't.
And I know a number of people in the prison. I even know the current warden that's up there now. One time I was sitting out front of his prison with my sign,
doing one of these all-afternoon kind of things.
And I'm sitting there and I usually—I'll have something that I'm reading too, at least that I can read. And I was sitting there and all of a sudden there was
this big huge figure in front of me and I looked up, 'cause I didn't see him coming.
It was the warden. And he came out and he said—I think his name was Connolly—and he says, "You know I know we're sort of on opposite sides of this issue, but
I want to just tell you that I really admire what you're doing."
And I really appreciated that and I thought it was kind of courageous on his part because, probably within five minutes everybody in that prison—that's a big
prison—probably knew what happened.
That guard—there's a guard right up there observing it all. I'm sure he got on the phone and said, "Now the warden's out here talking to this guy."
Maybe they didn't know what the warden said, but the fact that he came out. So, there are a lot of people in the prison system that know who I am.
And like I say, I think a lot of people in there don't like the death penalty at all. They'd rather get rid of it. Just go on with their normal life and not
have it. It's very hard for them to kill people. It's hard on anybody.
And they—some of ‘em get to know these people. I mean, they know that maybe they've done something bad in their life but they're not the worst thing in the
world. And they might do some good if they were given a chance.
I think—I've always said that I think one of factors that will do in the death penalty in Texas will be people in the prison system or have been part of the
That's why Reverend Carol Pickett when he speaks is so powerful. He's been there. He's heard—he's seen it first-hand. So he's got this credibility. If we
could get some wardens to come with us and do this, it would be just wonderful.
The other really powerful voice is the voice of a family member of somebody who's been murdered who, despite what they've gone through and all the pain say,
"This is not the right way to go." That's a very powerful voice.
And the voice of the exonerated prisoners are powerful. They've gone through and been wrongly convicted.
‘Cause there are a lot of people that the death penalty doesn't bother them from a moral perspective. But an unfair, flawed criminal justice system does
affect them. And they don't like to see that.
And so the voice of the exonerated prisoners is a powerful testimony to those people. That you can—the system is not perfect.
The people—I've been in a debate with a district attorney, and he, the D.A. would say, "There's no way an innocent person can be put on death row. They've
gone through the trial. They've gone through their appeals."
Well, my answer to them if they have not had a good attorney during the original trial or during the appeals, it's very easy to end up on Death Row even
though you're innocent.
David Atwood is an anti-death penalty activist. In Video 1, Atwood describes his involvement with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and his relationships with since-executed Death Row inmates including Richard Jones, Ronald Allridge, James Allridge, Antony Fuentes, Dominique Green or their families, as well as the family of murder victim Andrew Lastrapes. In Videos 2 and 3, Atwood describes an execution and outlines numerous problems with capital punishment. In Video 3, Atwood ascribes the relative silence of the contemporary Catholic Church about the death penalty to generational change: a generation of men who focus narrowly on abortion have replaced Vatican II-era clergy who cared about social justice in broad terms.This interview took place on September 25, 2008 in Houston, Harris County, Texas.
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Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Interviewer
Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Videographer
Susanne MasonRole: Transcriber
Sabina Hinz-FoleyRole: Proofreader
North America--United States--Texas
North America--United States--Texas--Austin
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