Taking a step against the death penalty
After 10 years of taking a stand against capital punishment in Texas, David Atwood took a step against it. That got him arrested and jail time.
The last months of 2004 were hard on Atwood. In the 10 years since he founded the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, more than 200 people have been executed in the state. He has stood vigil outside the execution chamber in Huntsville on the nights that more than 100 of them died.
He stood there again on the evening of Nov. 17 for the death of 20-year-old Anthony Fuentes. Fuentes' was the 27th execution in Texas last year and the third in six weeks of someone particularly close to Atwood.
Atwood stood with the Fuentes' grandmother. "It was sort of a cold evening and just beginning to get dark," Atwood told NCR. "We were standing there and she just began shaking, the grandmother. It wasn't because of the cold it was because of what she knew was going to take place inside."
"The grandfather was actually inside witnessing the death of his grandson," Atwood said. The grandmother wanted to get closer, so Atwood and Peggy, his wife, accompanied her to the yellow plastic tape prison authorities put up in front of the Walls Unit to keep people way from the building during executions.
Atwood was thinking: "Well here we go again. Another execution in Texas. We are up to 338 now. Anthony's was the last one in 2004 and he was number 336. So anyway, we were standing there with our signs and I said to myself, ‘I have to do something more this time to protest the execution.’ ”
Atwood, a chemical engineer who worked for oil giant Shell for 25 years, was introduced to the death penalty while serving on the local Campaign for Human Development board. A religious woman applied for funds to operate a newspaper written and published by death row inmates. "I started checking around," Atwood said. "I wanted to know what the Catholic church taught about the death penalty."
In his research he discovered that the United States was the only western country with capital punishment and that Texas executes more prisoners than any other state. Furthermore, he learned a quarter of Texas's capital punishment cases orginated in Harris County, where he lived.
But it was meeting prisoners that cemented Atwood's commitment to work against the death penalty.
"I went to visit some prisoners on death row," Atwood said. "I found out that these guys on death row were not monsters and animals - I am not trying to down play that they have done some horrible things and caused some people horrible pain - but that social teaching in the Catholic church that talks about the dignity of the human person, I could see that in death row prisoners. It became very real to me.
"Even though they were on death row and some of them had committed horrible crimes, they had not lost their dignity and I still believed that they were children of God and we should not execute them.
"I was not advocating that they should get out, but I knew it was morally wrong to execute them."
On Nov. 17 in the gathering dusk, Atwood handed his wife his wallet, cell phone and keys and ducked under the tape.
"I called over to the guard on the other side to tell him I was crossing. He said, 'You can't do that or you will get arrested.' I said, 'Well, I'm coming anyway. It's OK for you to arrest me.'"
He was led away, booked, fingerprinted and spent about three hours in the Walker County Jail until his wife bailed him out. "Now that is a good faithful wife," Atwood told NCR. "She could have said - we've been married for over 40 years and we have six children - she could have said David you've gone too far this time. You're on your own. But she bailed me out that night."
He was given Jan. 20 as court date for his trespassing charges. The judge gave him a choice: five days in the county jail or $500 fine. "I was told this was a pretty harsh punishment for a first time offense," Atwood said.
"There was no community service offered. There was no probation offered. I mean this is Huntsville, Texas, literally the center of the death penalty in the United States. They don't want people protesting." He chose the jail time.
"I really didn't want to put any money into their coffers," Atwood said, "and I really wanted to do something symbolic against the death penalty, more than just a simple protest. I wanted to do something more and since I was right there in Huntsville where all these executions take place I wanted to do something there."
For five days, he shared a cell, six bunk beds and two steel tables, with 11 other men. He dressed in an orange jumpsuit and had a single threadbare blanket at night.
"I was not abused or mistreated by anyone. But it is a very dehumanizing experience," he said of his time in jail. He said he did not find the guards hostile, but they were indifferent, which in itself is disrespectful.
During his stay, an article about him appeared in The Huntsville Item. "I could tell some of the guards had read it," Atwood told NCR, "because they treated me a little differently. When they addressed me, all of a sudden it was 'Mr. Atwood.' Before that it was no name."
He found two benefits to his time in in jail, he said.
"Our movement really needed some energy, and I think it gave the movement some energy in terms of people wanting to do more … It got people pumped up."
The experience also broaden him, he said. "I have always supported the concept of life without parole as an alternative the death penalty -- which I still do -- but one of the things that came through to me is that if we are going to have life without parole, or any long prison sentence, if we are not treating people humanly and really trying to help them out and become rehabilitated, it is very counter productive."