Death Letters

In 1990, Charles Dean Hood was convicted of murder and sentenced to die. Twelve years later he began writing to senior editor Michael Hall. Here, in three of his letters, he describes in extraordinary detail his two decades spent awaiting execution and reveals what it’s like to be taken to Huntsville for the lethal injection only to receive a stay at the last possible minute—not once, but twice.

On September 10, Charles Dean Hood will be executed. Or not. Hood, who was sentenced to death in 1990, has cheated the executioner five times now, in 1994, in 1999, in 2005, and twice on his most recent date, June 17, which turned out to be one of the most dramatic execution days in Texas history.

He received his first stay that day in the late afternoon from a trial judge, but the van taking him back to death row was detained after prosecutors submitted an appeal. Over the next six hours those prosecutors battled with frantic defense attorneys, while state and federal judges tried to sort out the mess. In the end, as the clock approached midnight, the state gave up trying to put Hood to death for fear it would not be able to carry out the process in time (his death warrant was to expire at 12:00 a.m.). On September 10, the executioner will get another chance.

Hood was convicted in 1990 of murdering Tracie Lynn Wallace and Ron Williamson in Plano on November 1, 1989. It was a grisly crime. Hood had been a housemate of the couple’s, and on that day, Williamson came home for lunch and found a note from Wallace saying she had gone for a walk. But the note was signed “Tracy” rather than “Tracie.” And Williamson’s safe was open. Williamson called 911 and told the operator that he feared Wallace had been abducted. “There’s a lot of things that just don’t add up,” he said. He was heard talking to another man in the background, a man later confirmed to be Hood. When police showed up four minutes later, they discovered Williamson shot through the head and Wallace wrapped in two garbage bags and stuffed in a water heater closet (she had also been shot in the head). Hood was gone, and Williamson’s watch and some jewelry were missing. Hood’s fingerprints were found on the note and the garbage bags. He had also left bloody prints on a weight machine jammed against the door to the water heater closet. The next day he was arrested in Vincennes, Indiana, driving Williamson’s Cadillac. He was wearing Williamson's watch and had Williamson's credit cards, which he had used to send several dozen roses—to his mother, to a girlfriend, and to the girlfriend’s co-workers. He had also pawned a ring of Williamson’s in Lewisville, Texas, and cashed a payroll check from Williamson’s software company, MicroSpec.

The following September Hood was found guilty of capital murder. His attorneys presented evidence they hoped would persuade the jury to spare his life—Hood was severely physically abused as a child, never finished high school, and had an IQ of 89—but to no avail. Hood was sentenced to die and hustled off to death row, which at the time was housed at the Ellis Unit, near Huntsville. Nine years later he and his fellow death row inmates were moved to a modern prison facility near Livingston called the Terrell Unit (later renamed the Polunsky Unit).

Hood started writing to me in 2002 after I published a story on another death row inmate named Ernest Willis, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1987 and eventually walked free as an innocent man. Willis had become such an important figure in Hood’s life that the younger inmate had started calling him Pop.

Like most prisoners who write letters, Hood claimed to be innocent, though from all I read and saw, his case seemed pretty clear-cut, one that the state had gotten right. At least I thought so until 2005, when the online magazine Salon published a story about Hood’s trial that quoted named and unnamed sources alleging that the judge, Verla Sue Holland, and the prosecutor, Tom O’Connell, had been having an affair. If this were true, it would, of course, be prima facie evidence of an unfair trial. What’s more, from 1997 to 2001, Holland had served on the Court of Criminal Appeals, the court before which Hood’s appeals had been argued. I visited Hood, read the trial transcript looking for evidence of favoritism toward O’Connell, and tried to find someone who could back up Salon’s allegations. I couldn’t and finally let the matter go.

I didn’t hear from Hood again until this past April, when he wrote to say that he had gotten another execution date. He wanted my help. I didn’t think there was much to say about his case, but I did propose that he write to me about what life was like on the most infamous death row in America. Hood is only 39 and has spent nearly half his life there—the first nine years at the old Ellis Unit, where men were allowed contact with one another, and the last nine at the Polunsky Unit, where they are kept in isolation. What was it all like? He agreed to tell me and began sending letters. The first one detailed his time at Ellis, the second his time at Polunsky.

Then came June 17. I had asked to be put on the media witness list for Hood’s execution. That Tuesday wound up being a day of firsts in Texas death penalty history: the first time a trial judge recalled a death warrant and then recused himself from the case. The first time a doomed man was put in the antechamber of his own death twice in a six-hour span. The first time the prison system called off an execution because it couldn’t get the job done before midnight. As spectacle, it was stunning. As punishment, it was cruel—for Hood, for his family, for the family of the victims—and even for Texas, it was unusual.

When Hood got back to death row, he wrote about that too. Michael Hall

With Hood's permission, his letters have been edited. Some of the grammar and spelling have been corrected for readability. 1

Editorial notes can be found at the end of the story.

June 12/08

Dear Mike,
How are you doing?

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