The Catholic Church's Declining Focus on Capital Punishment
Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty
Changing the Argument
Church Services on Death Row
Video 2of "Interview with David Atwood"
People and Organizations
Bernardin, Joseph Louis, Cardinal
Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty
Fiorenza, Joseph A., Archbishop Emeritus of Houston-Galveston
King, Reverend Martin Luther
Rivas, Andrew (Andy) (Texas Catholic Conference)
Texas Campaign to End the Death Penalty
Texas Catholic Conference
Willingham, Cameron Todd
Topics (HRDI thesaurus)
laws, justice, and judicial proceedings
civil and political rights
discrimination, ethnic and racial
discrimination, mentally disabled
economic, social, and cultural rights
social and cultural rights
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RAYMOND: David, you were talking about the voice of the exonerated and we had to change tapes.
DAVID ATWOOD: Right. They have a powerful voice because they demonstrate better than anybody that you can put the wrong person on death row, that the system
we have now, and that we'll probably always have, is not a perfect system.
ATWOOD: Mistakes can be made. There's flaws in the system. There are biases in the system. And we can end up with the wrong person on death row.
ATWOOD: And personally, I feel we've executed a number of innocent people in the state of Texas, some of whom I'm pretty familiar with. Seems like as time
goes on, more and more people are identified.
ATWOOD: We know we've had a number of innocent people that have been released. They were the fortunate ones that were lucky enough to have their innocence
discovered. But how many innocent people have we executed? I think there've been several. There just has to be.
ATWOOD: Unfortunately, you can go to death row without D.N.A. evidence. But to get off from death row and somebody to say totally that you're totally
innocent, it seems like it takes D.N.A. to go the other direction.
ATWOOD: But there are a number of cases where the evidence is so strong—mistaken eyewitness testimony— We've got a couple now where—one guy who was executed,
Willingham, they said he set this fire and another investigator came along and said, "Well, it's just a fire. There's no evidence that this was set."
ATWOOD: So you have a number of those cases that are—strongly point to innocence, and you can't correct these mistakes if you've executed somebody. You can't
correct it. You just can't.
ATWOOD: So, it's just a good reason I think that most people who are logical—they don't even have to go at it from a moral perspective should say this is not
a system we should have in place because it's a fallible system. And mistakes are made.
RAYMOND: I understand that you though, from your Catholic beliefs and your moral beliefs, maybe you would have them even if you weren't Catholic, I don't
know, that's probably an impossible question—are against the death penalty under any circumstances?
DAVID ATWOOD: Right, right.
RAYMOND: One thing I wonder about is some of these issues with attorneys who don't do anything with incompetence, with corruption, and or so forth on the
part of district attorneys or whoever, some of those problems you are trying to address in one form or another. Standards, developing a set of standards for defense attorneys, the creation of
the West Texas Regional Public Defender.
DAVID ATWOOD: Right.
RAYMOND: Now that we do have access to D.N.A. testing, and we have the District Attorney now in Dallas who's reopening cases to look, even to say, I think
he's guilty, but he didn't get a fair trial, perhaps.
RAYMOND: One of the things that I wonder is that, say we—say Texas actually did try to have a strong system of legal assistance for people charged with
capital murders, and say we did have a strong system of appellate attorneys.
RAYMOND: Are those—it's sort of the reform or abolition question, do you work for those in that—and save some people in the meantime, and yet does that lead
to a cleaner and more efficient, more well-supported system of capital punishment? I mean, what do you think of all that?
DAVID ATWOOD: I think that—first of all, all the reforms that they talk about, I'm really for them. And even if it makes the system—if it makes a better
system, I think that's good.
ATWOOD: I just—I don't think we'll ever get to the point where we'll have a system that can't make mistakes, even with improvements.
ATWOOD: In fact, if we had a system that really was a very good system and people who are poor had really good attorneys and had really good, not only for
the trial, but for the appeals, probably we'd have very few people going to death row.
ATWOOD: So it's almost like you would bring about abolition in a very different way. There are some states where that happens.
ATWOOD: I think Colorado is one right now where they have the death penalty on the book, but hardly anybody goes to Death Row because of their system. That
doesn't mean that dangerous prisoners are out on the street, it just means they're going in for long prison sentences rather than the death penalty.
ATWOOD: So I think that—I'm for the reforms, all the reforms we can get make a better system because it's not only good for people on death row but for
people who are not facing death. I think that there would be—let's say you created a system that was almost perfect. So you're not—it's extremely rare that you'd get the wrong person.
ATWOOD: I think there are a lot of arguments still against the death penalty. And one of ‘em is the—a lot of people don't want to talk about it, but is the
financial aspect of it. It's always gonna be more, much more, expensive.
ATWOOD: Because to have that perfect system, with the best attorneys and the extensive appeals, that's a very expensive proposition that I think has a
negative effect on even the families of the victims, who are waiting for this thing to happen and it takes a long time.
ATWOOD: There's always the moral question. I think that that doesn't seem to effect as many people as I would think it would affect. But I mean I hope with
time this whole concept of the sanctity of life will become a stronger element in our society so that we would never choose to take human life if we have, especially if we have a good
alternative, which we do now.
ATWOOD: We have life without parole. That's a very harsh punishment in itself and a lot of people don't like life without—I don't like life without parole as
such, but I prefer it to the death penalty because then you've got the possibility if you find a mistake later on you can correct the situation.
ATWOOD: I think with the time though I think that the idea that we should really hold life as being sacred is a concept that I hope will grow because it goes
way beyond even the death penalty.
ATWOOD: It goes to some of the other social issues. How do we treat our children? Goes into issues of war and everything. It's very broad. We'd be I think so
much better off as the human race if we'd give more emphasis to that.
ATWOOD: Again, I think there is a—it's hard to measure, but I think that the death penalty has a negative effect on society. Sometimes that's referred to as
a brutalizing effect. There are some people who have tried to measure that and I think they have measured it: that murders go up after an execution.
ATWOOD: I don't know if that's true or not, but I am convinced that there is a brutalizing effect of the death penalty on people. I think it is on people in
the prison system, I think it is on society in general.
ATWOOD: If you're taking a human being and killing that person, and it's totally unnecessary, that just cannot be good for us in general as people, that
we're doing that, that we're backing that and saying that's okay. I think it cheapens human life and degrades life across the board.
ATWOOD: So, I would push for the reforms, get the best criminal justice system we can, and then continue just to push for abolition of the death
RAYMOND: You've talked about what you say are changes in support among Texans in general for abolition, changes in perceptions of the death penalty.
RAYMOND: As a committed Catholic you've also been attentive to church, churches' views, church action and church inaction at times or lower action than you
would want. Are you seeing any changes in the Catholic Church's either teachings about the death penalty or views specifically within practicing Catholics about the death penalty?
DAVID ATWOOD: Well, one of the things that's happened, if you take say the last fifteen years or so, Catholics in general have changed in general as a result
of the Catholic Church speaking out pretty strongly against the death penalty. I think the polls have shown a change, and that's good.
ATWOOD: What I am concerned with right now in 2008 is I see somewhat of a—I think a slackening of the Catholic Church in terms of the attention to this
ATWOOD: There have been among the bishops in the United States, I mean our own bishop here, Bishop Fiorenza in Houston was one of our strongest, and still is
a strong supporter. Now he's retired now. And a lot of the really good things that happened in the Catholic Church was because he personally promoted it.
ATWOOD: He was president of the Catholic—the bishops organization for a while. And he strongly influenced the picture for quite a while. He's retired now and
I think some of the bishops that I run up against now seem to me more conservative, not as strong on the death penalty as he has been. That concerns me.
ATWOOD: I would like to see the Catholic Church put into effect what they called—this was sort of the culmination of everything that they'd done. In 2005
they put in the Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty. And made it sort of an official part of the church teachings more than they had before. And that was great.
ATWOOD: The problem is they haven't done anything. They haven't implemented it. It's down on paper. And it's very easy to put stuff on paper and then put ‘em
on the shelf and you forget about it. And I think that's what's happened.
ATWOOD: And one of the things I've been working on is to try to not let that happen, or at least do everything I can as a Catholic lay person to implement
that program. For instance, I set up a separate website that's what I call the Texas Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Just to try to implement it.
ATWOOD: ‘Cause when this thing came into place I talked to some people I know in the Catholic Church in Texas and said, "This is wonderful, now what are you
gonna do with it?" It's the Catholic Church, the official Catholic Church. And I kept waiting.
ATWOOD: And one year went by. The second year went by. Nothing was happening. And sadly, that's really the situation right now. There have been Catholic lay
people like myself that have been active. But in terms of the bishops in Texas, for example, really doing anything, that they haven't done it.
ATWOOD: And so I'm very concerned about that. I really am. And I think that the—they've always—when it comes to the death penalty, the Catholic statements
have always—there's a little bit of a loophole in there of, "We're against the death penalty unless it's needed to protect society."
ATWOOD: Well the reality is that there's no way that you can justify the death penalty now because you have secure prisons everywhere basically. You can put
someone in prison to protect society. You can't justify the death penalty. You can't say, "We gotta kill this person in order to protect society." You can't make that argument.
ATWOOD: And so the church ought to close that loophole a hundred percent. They should, I think. And that would prevent the Catholics who still support the
death penalty—they can't use that loophole anymore, which they will use it if they can, as we know. So you gotta close that loophole and then they ought to do some things that would really
reaffirm their strong opposition.
ATWOOD: Now they should do some more things. They ought to—the Catholic bishops of Texas should take this Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty and say
we are gonna implement this in Texas, this is how we're gonna do it. I've been talking to some people about how they should do it. They need to do it. But they haven't done it yet. And they
could do some symbolic things.
ATWOOD: For example, we've got a person up in Huntsville, or up in Livingston on Death Row, a guy named Chuck Thompson, who is a Catholic lay person who
became a Franciscan lay person while on Death Row, through the influence of a Catholic priest. Not a Catholic priest from around here, a Catholic priest from Boston actually.
ATWOOD: So, he's a Franciscan, and I visited him and he said to me, "Dave, they took away church services years ago and I'd really like to be able to go to
Catholic Mass with my—some of my friends who are Catholic."
ATWOOD: So I bring this up. I brought this up with the Catholic bishops. I says, Why don't you press for allowing church services—not just for Catholics, but
for anybody that wants church? And that's never happened.
ATWOOD: I've asked one of the bishops if he would go up and visit this particular person on Death Row. And that would symbolically speak tons about
commitment and concern. And that bishop hasn't done that yet.
ATWOOD: Personally, I'll tell you, I think this might be something we'll talk about editing a little bit, but personally, I think the Catholic Church is so
consumed with the abortion issue that it can't see past the end of its nose sometimes. That's just a flat out statement. They just—this abortion issue has just consumed them.
ATWOOD: And I'm talking about the bishops. I'm not saying the Catholic population overall. I don't know why that is. I think it's wrong. I don't think things
are in balance right now. I think things are out of balance.
ATWOOD: But the thing about the death penalty, if you give attention to the death penalty and say that the life of somebody on death row, somebody who's
actually committed murder is very important and we should not take their life. Here is the hardest person to make this case for.
ATWOOD: If you do that with that person, that takes all these life issues. It's like it brings them up, right? And it strengthens the whole message on the
sanctity of life if you do it for a death row prisoner.
ATWOOD: And the church right now puts all its emphasis on the unborn child, the innocent unborn child. Well, it just—I just think they need to develop this
more. And maybe they will. I mean I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
ATWOOD: But I'm a little concerned right now that the death penalty is sort of slid back a little in the Catholic Church in the last two or three years. I
ATWOOD: And I see it somewhat related to the retiring of Joseph Fiorenza as Bishop, cause he was a strong proponent and more conservative bishops coming in
to emphasize other things. So it has me concerned.
RAYMOND: Are there people who are bishops or priests coming up in this generation that give you hope on this issue?
DAVID ATWOOD: Yeah, yeah there are. There are young priests who are I think—Cardinal Bernardin from Chicago talked about the consistent ethic of life, which
is something I strongly believe in.
ATWOOD: And there are, I think, a number of young priests that really embrace that concept of the consistent ethic of life. And there are some that don't. I
mean, there are some priests that don't. But there are a lot that I think do. I think that that's where we have to go. I really do. And so there are people out there.
ATWOOD: I mean I get sometimes we—we're gonna have a program in November up at Huntsville. I talked to Andy Rivas of the Texas Catholic Conference about a—to
do a march for life, or procession for life starting at the Catholic Church in Huntsville and going over to the prison.
ATWOOD: And they broadened that somewhat to include some other life issues. That was not my original intent. I really just wanted to have a focus on the
death penalty. That's gonna be in November. I don't know how that's gonna turn out. We'll find out. I hope it will be all right.
ATWOOD: But it was one thought I had about how to get the Catholics more involved in the death penalty issue. And we'll see how that develops. So, I think
things have dropped off a little. I'm concerned, I really am.
ATWOOD: There are some very conservative elements in the Catholic Church who don't see anything wrong with the death penalty, don't see anything wrong
particularly with war—not that concerned about the environment. Maybe some concerns about poverty, but everything is sort of in their mind goes secondary to the abortion issue.
ATWOOD: I just don't agree with it. I hope I don't get thrown out of the church because I've said that. But I just—I think they—there needs to be some more
balance there. I really do.
RAYMOND: You've taught me and Gabe a lot in this last couple of hours and I really appreciate it and not just for me but for other people who are going to
learn from your wisdom. Is there anything that I should have asked you? Anything you want to say as we wind up here?
DAVID ATWOOD: No. I'll just say that I have a lot of hope. Really, I do have hope for the future. Things, big changes in society take a long time to take
place. Sometimes when you're right in the middle of it seems like things aren't moving very good.
ATWOOD: And so you have to have—I really do believe in that statement by Dr. King and I think others that the arc of the universe—the moral arc of the
universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I really do believe that. But if you're right in the middle of something, sometimes it's hard to see the progress.
ATWOOD: I do have a lot of hope that—I guess I think I do basically have a lot of hope in people, in general. I think there are some elements in society that
can be very destructive and they sometimes get into places of power and they don't do any of us any good.
ATWOOD: But in general, I think the people are good people. I think—I go—I travel to other countries. And Texas can and does have a bad rap in a lot of
countries because of the death penalty.
ATWOOD: And I—and sometimes people have even, "Oh, you're from Texas." Well, I'm here. I'm against the death penalty. That's why I'm here. I'm here to talk
about the death—and the fact that I'm from Texas will sometimes influence them. You can see that.
ATWOOD: And, but I will tell people, I will say to people, There are a lot of wonderful people in Texas. I've said, You may, coming from another country, you
may not see that and understand that, but I said, Texans are not bloodthirsty. We've had some politicians in power that have not done things to give our state a good reputation, but there are
wonderful people there.
ATWOOD: I have confidence that it will turn out good. It's slow, sometimes way too slow. But I have confidence it will happen.
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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David AtwoodRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
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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