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.

September 2008By Comments

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? Here’s the Ellis Unit part. Will have Polunsky article done and mailed out Monday morning. Hope you print more than 85% of what I send you. Take care and keep the faith, brother. “God Bless You.”

Life on the Row: Ellis Unit

Driving up in the van you could tell Ellis Unit was an old penitentiary. I noticed a huge gate, and it opened, and the officers at the back of the gate stared at me. Then these two big officers open the van and ask me if I was Mr. Hood. I replied yes. I was in leg irons (shackles) and a chain around my waist with my cuffed hands attached to it.

I was taken to the captain’s office, where Captain West and Sergeant Roach discussed the unit’s rules, handed me a Rules Book and other items, shaving brush and cup, toothbrush, mirror, bowls. After being briefed on everything I was escorted down to G-15 Wing. One thing I noticed right off the bat, the extreme loud noise coming off the wings. I was escorted up a staircase of three flights and when I got to the top, you could see mirrors pointed out just about every cell and you could see eyes looking at you. Some men saying, “new guy on the wing,” some expressing, “fresh meat,” just all the shenanigans that goes on. I got to 16 cell, the door slid open and slammed up against the bars. A guard walked in and pulled the light switch. A gloomy orange light appeared, and I entered the cell. The door slammed behind me.

I was trying to get my thoughts straight, and checking out the cell. I saw writing all over the walls. I noticed one phrase saying the following: “This place can either Make you Or Break you.” The mattress was a wore out thin piece of sad looking thing and gray. I laid there looking up to the TV that was out on the run and drifted off to sleep.2 I was awakened by a guard hitting the door to ask me if I was gonna eat chow (dinner). I got the tray, and I noticed a big pork chop on it with all the basic vegetables (prison grown). I ate what was eatable and it tasted alright for me.

The SSI3 came up with a few notes (“kite,” we say in prison). One from old man Willis, asking my name and if I needed anything. Next thing I knew a sack of stuff came to me by both men. Stamps, writing material, toothpaste, a few stacks, cause they knew it would be some time before I would be able to go to the commissary.

When it came time for Three Row to go out the next day, I took part in this daily ritual. Not knowing what to expect, you just prepare yourself the best possible way. We’ve all seen movies on prison, how you got to stick up for yourself or fall prey to the bullies. So I was ready for anything, yet all that was shown towards me was an extended hand to shake as a greeting of friendship. And I got to meet some really good people. The same that society condemned not fit to make it in society.

I lived on G-25 for just a few weeks, and got moved to J-21, which is considered hell on death row (“The Dungeon”). I had gotten written up (failure to groom infraction) for not shaving, which wasn’t my fault. Going down to J-21 Wing was like something out of the movies. My first night was a hellish experience. It was hot, noisy, and complete chaos. I was escorted behind a shield on wheels you had to walk behind every time you went down the run. You could smell fecal matter. The vents in your cell just sucked it straight to your cell. And you could actually see shit on the run. As night fell, you could see rats running up and down the run. I just set there on the (bunk) bed and watched them come out of the rusted pipes. I couldn’t believe it, there wasn’t nothing shy about them. They walked around, scrounged for food. Donny4 said don’t let your covers touch the floor, they’ll crawl up your covers. That entire night I just watched to see if any came into my cell.

Max5 and Cosmos6 actually had rats for pets. I asked them how in the heck they did that. Max told me he would catch the Momma rats and just hold them until they gave birth, and he would raise the babies. You had guys who even had birds for pets. One guy, they called him Birdman,7 he would find a nest up at the top of a window or a fence and just get him a baby bird. And raised it like a child.

After I got off J-21, I decided to go to the work program. I started out in the garment factory. You work to put together officers’ clothing. I worked on a button machine until I started working with laying out of the material. I met my best friend, Troy Dale Farris.8 We had so much in common. We both had 4×4 vehicles, we hunted with our brother, we were wild, you name it. The only thing I didn’t like was he was a Dallas Cowboys fan and I a New York Giants fan. I remember going to the dayroom on Sundays to catch the Nascar races. We went to church together.9 We looked out for each other.

I decided to also go to school to get my GED. School was offered to us, until some public officials complained about death row inmates getting a free ride. You know you’re placed on death row to die. But some convicts call it Life Row, and you can understand this term, because you actually don’t know if you’re gonna be executed or live many years on the row.

There’s some things you see or experience that’s just unacceptable. I knew of a retarded guy who got raped and no one went to his aid. I never met a homosexual until I came to death row. The first guy was Slim.10 He had a feminine way about himself, and I became friends with him. He knew I don’t swing in that fashion, so he kept refraining to ask me. Many guys had girls (prison punks). I guess someone to cling to for all different reasons other than sex. For whatever reason I met some good guys whose life were in that way.

There are a lot of men on death row who shouldn’t be there. A lot of young guys (kids) come to Texas death row because they made a mistake, not some awful, evil person who would continue to break the law. In all my years on the row, I’ve only seen a few fights, nothing that got out of hand, just an argument that ended up throwing down on each other. When you got a lot of men together, who are stressed out, who could’ve gotten a bad letter. Wife, girlfriend leaving them. Only one man I saw get killed on the row. I’ve seen officers jumped on more than prisoners fighting it out. It’s all about respect and manhood back here. And a lot of the guards force an inmate in a situation that if they don’t act back, their homeboys think dude, you let that guard talk to you that way, he punked you. I’ve seen two groups of officers, the ones who do their job and don’t treat you like shit, and ones who think they need to prove something. You keep jabbing at a person who society condemns as a criminal, well what happens? The person or animal bites back.

I got to know Pop, as I call him, old man Willis,11 when I went back to G-15. I got tired of the work program and needed to get focused on my case again. I called him Pop because he really cared for me, treated me like a son.

I started drawing, to occupy my time, building jewelry boxes, clocks, you name it, I did it.12 You needed something to take up your time. Time goes by so slow on the row. You wait for mail call in the evening because it’s the best part of the day, and if you don’t get any then you get down & out. At Ellis you were allowed to have a celly, and it really did help the time to go by. You are a bit worried at first, because you know for some reason another guy is on death row so you don’t want him to act crazy on you and things get out of whack. I was in the cell with several people over the years @ Ellis. Bobby13 came up for the program and they placed him in the cell I was in. We lived together for some time. A lot of bathroom humor went on. We would purposely eat a can or two of beans to fart to get a good laugh. It’s hard to find laughter on a daily basis on the row.

So! One thing I know is you must have something to hang on to. I’ve met some really wonderful people and some beautiful women over the years here on the row. You get some who you can go down the romance road with. You are a man, so you do miss being with a lady. So you talk sex with them. You used to be able to get nude photos to assist in your cravings, etc. There was even the opportunity to hook up with an officer (female). Many guys have had the opportunity to get some ass. It was that wide open over there. I remember even one getting pregnant. I remember me and my friend Chucky14 would hold jiggers (watch out for each other) when one would like to get some. Some of the ladies were even selling it if you had the money.15

Another thing that we used to have at Ellis was sports tournaments, and we used to get ribbons for 1st, 2nd, & 3rd prizes, however we also would chip in different items. I remember Big George, A.K.A. “New York,”16 Me, and Paul17 and Bob18 winning the basketball tournament. It was so cool. The odds were clearly against us, but we won, and till this day Big George and I reminisce about it. It was like winning the NBA Finals.

You have some really good times on the row and you have the down and out ones. I’ve lost so many good friends. Chi-town (Richard Cartwright),19 a guy from Chicago, was considered a dang good friend. I even got to know his mother. You spend so much time on the row you actually grow up with guys. You can tell when someone gets a bad letter or something is wrong because you’ve been around them so long. A lot of them become like family.

I wished we were still over at the Ellis Unit, but since the Death Row Seven tried to escape in November of 1998, everything went downhill. Over the years at different times men had escaped, but always got caught before they got over the fence. Once one got over the fence, that was it. They started shipping death row over in 1999. On March 2, 2000, I was told to pack up.20

I remember all being crammed on a bus like sardines. As we were coming over it was so good to see the free world, people, houses, trees, just life in motion. At a bridge going over Lake Livingston, I can remember one guy yelling out, “Officer (the bus driver), you ain’t got a hair on your ass you don’t drive this bus off the bridge into the water.” The ride was tense, and everyone started to laugh at these remarks, but I was praying that it wouldn’t happen. I’m damn sure others were also.

And we reached the unit, Terrell Unit it was called.

June 14/08

Dear Mike,
How are you doing?
I hope things are going well on your end. What did I tell you, shit was gonna hit the fan on the Judge & DA issue. It’s all over the news and papers yesterday.21
Well, here is Chapter 2. I hope you got the first part.
Hope to and pray for it to see you after the 17th. Maybe one Wednesday you could make it, the 18th or 25th.
Take care, my friend, and appreciate all your help. Mean that! “God Bless You.”
Your friend,

Life on the Row: Polunsky Unit

I remember pulling up to the back gate. Then it was Terrell Unit, but Mr. Terrell didn’t want his name affiliated with death row so they changed it to Polunsky Unit.22 It clearly looked bigger and a lot different than the old rusty brick color Ellis Unit. We drove all the way up, till we reach the back gate to the death row 12 Building section. You were checked naked and given a piece of clothing they consider boxers. I was placed in 29 cell with nothing except a blue mattress. I got up on the bunk and looked out the window. It was very small, 3 inches wide by 4 feet long, but at least you had a view.23

It was loud in the section because the sound echoes. Concrete & Iron mix! I heard someone yell out, “TV change,” expressing that at Ellis, you would yell out “TV change” for the officers to change the TVs on the row. Well, there is no TVs over here at the new death row. Someone was just trying to get a laugh, and it was funny, yet it made you face reality. No TVs!

We were all isolated now. No more walking down to the commissary, no more playing sports together, no more church services.24 Chow came to you by a tray courier, and the first thing you clearly noticed about it was the food was cold. And the state food really doesn’t taste good warm or hot, but cold you don’t want to even eat it.

It’s like night & day, when you look at both units. Everything was good over at Ellis Unit, except the heat. Yet many of us always have said over the years, I’d rather have the hot summers over at Ellis Unit than this unit any day. The main difference is the freedom, for sure. I’ll elaborate. At the Ellis Unit, you were able to be outside your cell from 6 am till 9 pm and till 10:30 pm in the dayroom. Here you’re locked down 22 hours each day. You are allowed on your scheduled days to go to the dayroom or outside rec yard. That’s 5 days a week. Dayroom consists of a table, pull up bar, toilet & sink, and mat to exercise on. That’s it! Outside rec yard consists of a basketball goal, pull up bar, sink & urinal. Picture a small cage with glass on one side surrounded by two walls and then bars. All it is missing is a rope with a tire hanging from the ceiling. It would look just like a cage at the zoo for gorillas. If a dog was locked in it, a thousand people would be protesting out front of the unit yelling cruel & unusual punishment.

No more moving around by ourselves. You only move now being escorted. You are cuffed no matter where you are going. The only human contact you have over here is if a TDCJ guard touches your hands as they cuff.

I would love to attend church service again. I attended both over at Ellis Unit, Protestant & Catholic. Why, you may say. You can’t get enough of ‘GOD.’ Yes there is a slight difference, but both believe in ‘GOD’ and the son ‘Christ Jesus.’ Here at Polunsky, you have neither. No church service, no fellowship, unless you are extremely lucky to have a neighbor who is a fellow believer. Once every two weeks Mr. Ray Harrison does come around to give you two communion cups to last you two weeks and sometimes voluntary chaplains come by. What’s it like not attending church service? A big horrible feeling. You need the church services in a terrible place like this.

The food is nasty! You are fed greasy food every day. Always some type of greasy macaroni with some type of processed meat. Always beans on the tray. And you are supposed to get dessert every other day. Not true! At Ellis you got it every lunch. It’s like night and day when it comes to the food you get at both units. Just look at the pancakes. Ellis pancakes looked & tasted like you ate at “The Waffle House.” Polunsky Unit look like they wiped the floor with them.

Work program was suspended because of the escape. What I don’t understand is the TDCJ officials suspended it to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. That was in 1999. How come there hasn’t been a new program started back up? After 8 + years what is going on? Not a damn thing. They refused to fix it. They don’t want us moving around by ourselves. We are in cells that a man is only supposed to be in for 6 months, an inmate who received disciplinary action. But we’ve been in these cells for over 8 years now. The work program was important. It meant Freedom, more movement, less anxiety, stress on your case, life, etc. Work is important regardless what type it is.

I’ve noticed the guards “Gassing” the inmates.25 A lot of times, if you don’t come out of your cell they gas you. Men being Gassed! I can only remember two times in all the years at Ellis that this ever happened. Men are tired of being treated like scum here, so they do things to get into trouble. Some guys do it because it’s a game to them. Have I ever been gassed? NO! I don’t get into trouble. I know how to do what is right and mind my own business.

Its getting worse and worse to cope with things. We are fed nasty ass Johnny bags, consisting of wet pancakes and peanut butter. Only shower every other day. They come in and shake your house down daily to mess with you. Everyone gets stressed out. It gets louder in here, just totally chaos. Men are even killing themselves. One guy took his life at Ellis in the years I was there. But here at Polunsky I believe there has been 10 or more who have committed suicide since coming over here.26 Why? Being in this solitary confinement, not being able to handle this way of life, etc. They lose their minds. I hear a lot of guys say, I don’t want to live life this way. You have nothing basically. Suicide is a way to escape.

My friend Chucky cut his wrist a few years ago and now is on some type of depression drugs. A lot of Men ARE! I remember him telling me, “Hood, every crack in the wall and spot, I’ve given a woman’s name to.” I thought to myself, dude, you are losing it for real. This is the same guy who played sports, made jewelry boxes and clocks that looked bad ass.

Here is my daily Routine: I get up, say my prayers, read the bible and try to spend time with ‘GOD.’ I fix a cup of coffee and usually start a letter or two. Also depends on when it is time for me to go to either dayroom/rec yard. I work out one body part twice a week. I do pushups, pullups, curls, squats, etc: It is extremely important to stay healthy. Stress can really eat at you and cause health problems. You keep your house clean, because it’s the rules to keep a clean house (cell).

It’s loud, so you sleep when you can. You got guys talking, and other guys are talking louder to be overheard. At night also some crap goes on. There isn’t any respect. You can ask people to keep it down, but you get either ignored or disrespected by someone cussing you out. You better buy some ear plugs. You got also psychiatric patients back here, guys who have lost it. Well, they are always yelling, beating on the doors, tables, etc. Then you have those who play that damn chess day and night. They number their board with numbers and letters so each person has the right sequence, and each person makes a move. You just get sick and tired of hearing “pawn to echo 4,” etc.

If you are lucky your family or friends send you a little commissary money. You are allowed to spend $75.00 every two weeks. You can buy a radio, typewriter, fan, hot pot, headset, watch. Also hygienes, cause they do not offer you deodorant, shampoo, shower shoes, mouth wash, lotions. Also food, because the food is so bad. You definitely want to buy a case of ramen soups for $6.00, cause you can survive on them babies. A lot of men buy them. I also buy tuna, jalapeno peppers, cookies and vitamins. A lot of guys fix Prison Tacos, mixing different types of food together to place on flour tortillas. You take a pouch of chili, beef pot roast, or beef tips, throw in some chips, ramen soup, peppers and cheese, and you have something really darn good. Beats the tray every day. You place everything in a bag, yell at the guy you offered on eating with that night or day, and he shoots his fishing line down to you.27 You fish the end in, place the bag on his line, he pulls it back to his cell. We have a little open space at the bottom of the door, big enough to pull some food in, or newspaper. You even got Tuna tacos: Tuna, ramen soup, salad dressing, peppers, pickles, cheese, and chips. There is some really good cooks back here.

I have an execution date now.28 And I set in what is called a Death Watch Cell. Am on video camera 24/7. If I take a pee (urinate) or defecate, a woman can see you do it.

Being on death watch sucks. You’re already at your wits end, stressed out, and you got to cope with so much yet remain positive and don’t sweat the small shit.

This is my fourth execution date, last one in 2005, June 30. I received a stay June 28 that Monday evening and heard it on KDOL. When you get a date, they play the music you want and family & friends call. I requested the same music I did in 2005.29

What will happen to me? Will the state put to death another man on the 17th? I remain positive that the corruption will come out and I’m given a stay and a new trial to be given a fair chance to put forth evidence.30 Am I scared? I walk by faith. ‘Jesus’ said don’t lose heart. I believe that things will work out.

June 25/08

What I remember of the events that happen this day and night, Mike.
It mentally and physically wore me out.
Look forward to hearing/seeing you when you can.
Thanks for talking to my brother, appreciate that. “God Bless You.”
P.S. Yes! A gut wrenching experience!

Going to the Walls

Got out to the visiting room right at 8 am for a visit with my brother James + Sister Cheryll.31 To my surprise, my brother walked in an old familiar face too, a longtime friend, Mr. Terry. I was overjoyed to see my friend, who being from Wisconsin took the Amtrak train all that way to just see me for 2 hours. So we talked awhile, reminisced about old times. He left so my sister could come in the remaining time, cause you’re only allowed 2 people in at a time. As time was going by, we three just broke down. I knew the tears would come, but I actually thought it would be when they said you have 5 minutes left.

I’m not ashamed to shed some tears. It’s my Brother & sister who I love dearly sitting there. And a sense of fear out of the blue came up. But it was quickly extinguished by saying “we got to walk by faith. And one thing we are and that’s believers of ‘Jesus Christ.’” And time was up and we placed our hands on the glass to express our love for one another. Sister started crying again, and they cuffed me.

I watched them walk out, and I was escorted to the bathroom where they strip you down.

One of the Lieutenants broke off the handcuff key, so now the cuffs can’t be removed. There was so many ranking officers gathering over there, laughing. It was appalling, downright disrespectful to stand along the wall there and carry on a laughing mood, knowing a man is considered to be on his way to the Walls Unit. But this isn’t nothing new, it happens all the time. When someone is being taken over to the Walls Unit, the officials shake hands, laugh, and carry on like they are at a ballgame.

Anyway, Major Smith, who I have a great deal of respect for cause he has treated me with respect and like a human being, he told me, “Mr. Hood, I looked at your record while on the row. You don’t cause trouble, so I will assist you within my means and make sure you get what you need, and if you need to speak to me over a matter I’ll handle it.” And Major Smith lives up to his word. He took over the situation with the cuffs, and after 30 minutes they cut it off with some heavy duty bolt cutters. I was then escorted out of there, walking by all the officials who were just carrying on having a good ol’ time. Their faces went blank you could see, some even didn’t want to look me in the eyes. I just walked past them with my head up, and down the side walk to another small cage down the hallway where all my clothes were removed. I went through the protocol of stripping out, where you ran your fingers through your hair, opened your mouth, raised your arms, raised your testicles, turned around, lift your feet up, wiggled your toes, and bent over and spread your butt cheeks. Then you’re given all new clothes and cuffed and escorted up a little ways and then placed in a chair that detects if you have any type of metal in your rectum or in your mouth.

After that display you are asked to get on your knees. And then you’re shackled with leg irons, and a chain belt is raised to go up to the hand cuffs you have in the front.

You are escorted from 12 Building out to a van, placed along with your property in a very small cage, extremely hot too, because it has plexiglas on it, so you aren’t getting none of the air condition that the officers up front are getting for your 45 minute trip to the Walls Unit.32 We drove to the back gate, where we go through the check point and an officer noticed the back left tire was very low, but we went on with it. Two cars showed up. It’s your guarded posse that transfers you over. The drive over was bumpy and hot, but being outside the unit after spending all those years in a concrete cage, just seeing life, everything, people in their everyday routine, stopping at red lights, and seeing people gaze at us, going across the bridge, seeing a boat out on the water was a blessing.

Arriving at the Walls Unit, we went to the back gate. You could tell the unit was extremely old, the architecture designs of the bricks, the old rusty look, etc. The back gate officer asked my TDCJ number and they proceeded to go through the maze of gates to reach the old part of the prison where so many men were executed for so many years.

As you get up to the fence, there’s a brown tarp on the fence, so once you go through the gate you are not seen getting out of the van. You are escorted through a heavy steel door and then over to the far end, where the cuffs, leg irons are removed. You once again go through the strip down routine, get a pair of boxers, are finger printed, and you are then escorted down to a cage.33 You are asked, “Are you going to cause trouble?” several times. A shirt, pants, and socks are given to you to wear. The Warden comes in and goes through the protocol with you. I asked if I could speak. He said, “What is it you have to say, Mr. Hood?” I asked, “Sir, when you come in, could I just lay down and y’all carry me into the room? Cause I don’t want to walk in there.” Warden said, “We will do whatever you want, Mr. Hood.”

Mr. Lopez, the Head Chaplain over all the units, was there with me. We go back a long time. I met him at Ellis Unit. A wonderful man, highly respected by a lot of us. Me & Mr. Lopez spoke and held hands and prayed together. He got me some tea, and the tea over there is so good. Nothing like you get here. Very sweet and 8 cups just wasn’t enough. I was stressed and nervous to say the least. A tray of desserts were on a table in front of the cell. I noticed one thing, a pastry called empanadas (a Mexican pie). I asked Mr. Lopez for one of them.

I used the phone to call my parents, my brother James, sister Cheryll, and two dear friends, Sylvia and Mr. Terry, who were over at the Hospitality House.34 I was on the speak phone praying with them. Sister Cheryll is a woman of great Christian faith, and always standing firm in the faith and love of “God” through “Jesus Christ.” I was calling everyone I had a phone number to. I was told I could use the phone up till 5:15 pm so I wanted to try and speak to everyone to encourage them and not worry but walk by faith. I called a dear friend Debbie, who assisted me with a three way, cause they only allow you to call within the United States. So I spoke to her, and she said, you want to call Nicole, who lives in Canada. Heck yeah! So! I called her, first got her answering machine, and she picked up, was crying, probably just sitting on the sofa and was thinking about me, and we surprised her.

I called my parents and the food showed up about 4:00, I think. I ordered 2 7 oz steaks, 7 sunny side up eggs, with a bowl of Jalapeño peppers and a glass of ice and 4 milks, and a pint of Vanilla ice cream.35 But I just sat there on the phone talking to my parents, and I couldn’t eat it. I just didn’t have the stomach to eat it. It smelled good, looked good but I just couldn’t eat it. Just kept drinking the tea. I continued to talk with family, friends, and my attorney Mr. Ellis.36

Then came the good news. I got a stay.37 I jumped up with joy in my heart, praised ‘God,’ got down on my knees, prayed, and just felt joy all over. Me and Mr. Lopez were very happy. He said he was going over to see James, and then the process of bringing me back started. I was cuffed and put back in the van. We started back to Polunsky Unit. We got to the back gate, where we stayed until the other two cars could arrive. One of the officers came back to the door and said, “Well, Hoss, got to take you back.” I kept praying, Please “God” don’t let this happen, please don’t let these people execute me.

The stress level went up, and we got back to the death house. Went back through the process and was placed back in the cell. Mr. Lopez showed back up, and I was shaking like crazy. I asked to call my attorney. Mr. Ellis picked up, explained what was going on.38 I told him not to give up, please don’t give up. I couldn’t stop shaking. I continued to pray hard, even calling over to the Hospitality House and being placed on the speaker phone and praying with my sister Cheryll and brother, Sylvia and Mr. Terry. Mr. Lopez would come over to read bible verses to me, to let me know its ok.

Hours went by. It was 10 pm. Still attorneys battled back-n-forth with the courts.39 Stress levels continued to go up. I remember my sister said tic clock tick, expressing that if 12 o’clock rolled around, they couldn’t execute me. I didn’t even want to know what time it was. So much was running through my mind. Was I scared, or just my nerves shot? I can say they were shot.

Called Mr. Ellis again. It was after 11 pm then, and he said the Supreme Court turned down my issues before them.40 At 11:30 my brother was called to come over to the prison. Every time the phone rang it got tense. I called Cheryll once again. Mr. Lopez held my hand.

Next thing I knew the room filled up with a lot of guards and people in free world clothing. I said, Cheryll, ‘Jesus’ is here to get me. All of a sudden, a calmness came over me. I looked up, expressed I love you Cheryll, tell Mom and Dad I love them, and don’t you worry okay. ‘Jesus’ is here. I felt the Lord in the room. I know without a doubt he was there. Mr. Lopez continued to stand in front of the cell and hold my hand. Got me some tea. I stood there, looked at Warden Simmons, and said, sir I appreciate you treating me like a human being. I let my record express what kinda inmate I was, sir. I wasn’t a trouble maker. And Major Smith was there. I thanked him for also treating me with dignity. And I started to express that “Jesus” was here, I knew it, and Mr. Lopez knew it too.41

Minutes went by, and the room continued to fill up. And the next thing I knew a gentleman came up to me and said, “I’ll be taking you back to Polunsky Unit in 30 minutes. Get ready.” I looked at him and said are you lying? He said, I don’t joke around like that. I looked at Mr. Lopez and we prayed and I fell to my knees, tears streaming down my face. I said thank you “God,” all glory goes to you. The room emptied out, and I was shaking so bad it was hard to hold the cup to drink the tea.42

Mr. Lopez said he was going over to see my brother. I thanked him and said I love you, sir. He left, and I was stripped out, cuffed again, leg irons placed back on. I was exhausted now. We walked out the door to get into the vans and I asked the officer if he got the tire fixed on the van. He laughed and said, you sure are worried about that tire. I didn’t say nothing else, but in my thoughts, yeah, I was worried, cause they drive fast, and if a tire blows we could all get hurt.

Loaded once again into the van, and I said prayer after prayer thanking “GOD.” We couldn’t leave until the death warrant expired. We started back, the hour drive just seemed like two hours. When we came within view of the big lights of the prison, I was glad to get back. After going through the back gate, we drove up to 12 Building, the door was open and Lt. Brown met us. I was totally exhausted. I asked, sir, if it is possible could you please just get me a reasonable mattress. I’m wore out, sir.

Lt. Brown said everything is already taken care of. I was taken in. After my property was placed in the cell, Officer Pope got me a tray. I ate the eggs and just fell out, went straight to sleep.


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

2 At Ellis, convicts were allowed to watch satellite TV in dayrooms or from their cells. Sets hung on the walls of the runs—or walkways—about every twenty feet. I asked Larry Fitzgerald, who was the public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) at the time, how they decided what to watch. “It was democracy in its purest form,” he told me. “They voted on it.”

3 A support staff inmate (SSI) is a well-behaved prisoner who earns the right to work in the prison laundry or as a janitor.

4 Donald Miller was executed February 27, 2007, for the robbery and murders of Michael Mozingo and Kenneth Whitt near Lake Houston in 1982.

5 Max Soffar, the only Jew on death row in Texas, was convicted of murdering three people—Arden Alane Felsher, Tommy Lee Temple, and Stephen Allen Sims—in a Houston bowling alley in 1981. His conviction was overturned in 2004 by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but he was reconvicted in 2006. He remains on death row.

6 Hood did not remember Cosmos’s full name, only that he had been executed.

7 Fletcher Mann, known as Birdman, was executed June 1, 1995, for the 1980 murder of Christopher Bates in Dallas.

8 Farris was executed January 13, 1999, for the 1983 murder of Clark Rosenbaum Jr., a deputy sheriff in Fort Worth.

9 At Ellis, services for Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims were held in the rec room.

10 James Allridge, known as Slim, was executed August 26, 2004, for the 1985 murder of Brian Clenbennen in Fort Worth.

11 Willis was eventually freed in 2004 after a federal judge overturned the conviction. When I talked with Hood about Willis, he got tears in his eyes. “I cried like a baby when Mr. Willis left, because he was like a dad to me. What really hurt—I get a letter from him and he told me he didn’t want to write no more because he wanted to get this place out of his life.”

12 One of the ways death row inmates passed the time at Ellis was by “piddling,” or making crafts out of things bought at the commissary. With so much time on their hands, they often produced surprising artifacts. Kenneth McDuff, who murdered fourteen people and was executed in 1998, once made a clock out of tongue depressors.

13 Robert Alan Fratta was convicted in 1994 of hiring two men to kill his estranged wife, Farah, at her home in Atascocita. They were also convicted of capital murder. All three remain on death row, though last year, an appeals court ruled that Fratta should receive a new trial.

14 Marlin Enos Nelson, known to Hood as Chucky, was convicted of the 1987 murder of James Randle Howard in Houston. He remains on death row.

15 Larry Fitzgerald, the former public information officer, did not deny Hood’s allegations. “I don’t know about selling it,” he told me. “But there have been officers in the system disciplined for doing it.”

16 George McFarland was convicted of the 1991 robbery and murder of Kenneth Kwan in Houston. He remains on death row.

17 Paul Colella was convicted of the 1991 murders of Michael Lavesphere and David Ray Taylor on South Padre Island. In 2003 the capital murder charge was dropped. Colella pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and was given twenty years. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2012.

18 Bobby Lee Hines was convicted of the 1991 robbery and murder of Michelle Wendy Haupt in Dallas. He remains on death row.

19 Cartwright was executed May 19, 2005, for the robbery and murder of Nick Moraida in Corpus Christi in 1996.

20 On Thanksgiving Day 1998, seven death row convicts attempted a daring escape from the Ellis Unit. Only one, Martin Gurule, made it beyond the fence. He was found a week later about a mile from the prison, drowned in Harmon Creek, a tributary of the Trinity River. The cardboard and magazines he had strapped around him for protection from the razor wire had swelled with water and weighed him down. This was the first escape from Texas’s death row since 1934, and the worldwide attention that followed was extremely embarrassing for the TDCJ. This, along with the fact that Ellis was overcrowded, led the state to move all inmates to the Terrell Unit, a modern prison opened in 1993.

21 Two days before Hood sent this letter, an appeal had been filed on his behalf. It contained an affidavit from Matthew Goeller, a former assistant district attorney who worked under Tom O’Connell (the prosecutor in Hood’s case), alleging that the affair between O’Connell and Judge Verla Sue Holland was “common knowledge” around the courthouse. Goeller was the first source who had worked for the prosecution to corroborate some of the claims in the 2005 Salon article, and his testimony brought a great deal of national media attention to Hood’s case.

22 The Terrell Unit had been named for Charles Terrell, a former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. But in July 2001, Terrell, who was no longer on the board, asked that his name be taken off the prison. “I just don’t like my name being associated with death row,” he told the Dallas Morning News. Allan B. Polunsky, another former chairman, had no such qualms.

23 At Polunsky the cells are six feet by ten feet. The solid steel doors have two narrow vertical slits for observation and a drawerlike horizontal slot for food delivery. Unlike the cells at Ellis, which had bars for doors, these cells were specifically designed for solitary confinement.

24 From the start, it was clear things were going to be different at the new prison. Officials had concluded that Gurule and his mates had hatched their plan on the yard, in the cells, in the garment factory, and possibly during church services. So goodbye to all that.

25 When a recalcitrant or slow-moving inmate will not leave his cell, the guards use pepper spray to subdue and remove him. According to Larry Fitzgerald, before pepper spray became common, in the nineties, the guards used tear gas.

26 Hood’s numbers are incorrect. Between 1977 and 1999 there were five death row suicides at the Ellis Unit. At Polunsky, there have been five more, including two this year. Since the beginning of 2000, there have been 216 suicides in the entire Texas prison system, which currently holds 157,000 inmates at 109 units.

27 The ingenuity of doomed, isolated men is pretty much unlimited. To send messages or packages, they pull threads from their sheets or clothes and weave them together to create a fishing line. They weight one end with a paper clip or some other object and throw it down the run.

28 In September 2007 the Supreme Court put a de facto moratorium on executions while it considered the constitutionality of lethal injections. For eight months, there were no executions anywhere in the United States. Then, this past April, the court approved the lethal injection protocol used in Kentucky. Subsequently, the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) ruled that the Texas protocol did not differ significantly from the Kentucky method, and the state began rescheduling executions. Hood’s was to be the third.

29 KDOL is a radio station in Livingston that airs a special program from seven to nine p.m. on the eve of an inmate’s execution, during which the host, Pastor Sylvia Joplin, plays the inmate’s song requests and reads messages from his family and friends. The weak signal does not travel far, but prisoners at Polunsky with transistor radios have no trouble picking it up. In 2005 and again this past June, Hood submitted the following playlist: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band (“Against the Wind,” “Main Street,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” “Still the Same,” “The Fire Inside,” “Hollywood Nights,” “Night Moves”), .38 Special (“Rockin’ Into the Night,” “Hold on Loosely,” “Fantasy Girl,” “Caught Up in You”), Meat Loaf (“Bat Out of Hell”), Foreigner (“Dirty White Boy”), Guns N’ Roses (“November Rain”), Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA,” “Hungry Heart”), Eddie Money (“I Wanna Go Back”), and MercyMe (“I Can Only Imagine”).

30 Hood’s hopes were pinned to the petition filed on June 12 containing the Goeller affidavit. But two days after this letter was sent, on June 16, the CCA turned this petition down, saying the new information didn’t meet the filing requirements.

31 Hood has one brother, James; one sister, Cheryll; and six stepsisters and stepbrothers. He and his siblings grew up in Indiana, South Carolina, and Florida. His parents, Charles and Sandra, came to Texas for his previous execution date, in 2005, but are ailing and could not make the trip on June 17.

32 Until they were transferred to the Ellis Unit in 1965, death row inmates were housed at the Huntsville Unit, known to most people as “the Walls,” for the 32-foot-high redbrick walls that surround the prison. Even after death row moved away, however, executions continued to be carried out in Huntsville, meaning that every condemned inmate has to take a final trip to the Walls. It is a scenic drive. Starting in Livingston, the van goes through Onalaska, over Lake Livingston, past Point Blank, and through the piney woods of the Sam Houston National Forest before arriving at the death house.

33 Prisoners awaiting execution are held in a small cell within a larger room that is adjacent to the chamber in which the lethal injection is administered. The door to this chamber is fifteen feet away from the cell. According to Hood, whenever the door was opened, a “big blue light” spilled into the room. While waiting, prisoners are allowed to make collect calls.

34 The Hospitality House is a privately funded guesthouse in Huntsville built to host convicts’ families. Victims’ families usually congregate in a room inside the Walls Unit. There to witness Hood’s execution were Ron Williamson’s son, Roger, who is in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy; Roger’s nurse and assistant, Debbie Locke; Williamson’s ex-wife, Eva Williamson; a friend of Eva’s named William Thomas Riley; and Julie Anne Wallace, Tracie Lynn Wallace’s sister. James Hood was the only member of Hood’s family on his witness list.

35 For their last meals, prisoners are allowed to request anything that could normally be prepared in the prison kitchen. Popular items include cheeseburgers, french fries, and ice cream. For her last meal, Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in 1998, ordered a banana, a peach, and a garden salad with ranch dressing—but never ate it. Kenneth McDuff ordered two 16-ounce steaks, eggs, fries, vegetables, and coconut pie. Like Hood, he was served Salisbury steak, the only kind of steak served at Huntsville.

36 Hood has two main attorneys, Richard Ellis, who works pro bono out of his San Francisco law firm, and Greg Wiercioch, another San Francisco lawyer, who works for the nonprofit Texas Defender Service. All death row inmates get court-appointed appellate attorneys, but the lucky ones, like Hood, attract the attention of high-quality death row legal representation willing to work for little or no pay.

37 The day before, Hood’s team had filed three claims with the U.S. Supreme Court to try to stop the execution. Now, in mid-afternoon, Wiercioch filed a motion in the 296th District Court of Collin County, the court in which Hood’s case was originally prosecuted, to compel the district attorney’s office to disclose any information that would confirm the reports of a relationship between Judge Holland and DA O’Connell. However, due to a strange (and, for Hood, beneficial) set of circumstances, Wiercioch’s motion wound up in the 219th District Court. Since the current judge in the 296th, John Roach Jr., is the son of the Collin County district attorney, John Roach, all criminal cases in Collin County are now referred to other district courts as a matter of policy. Wiercioch’s motion was referred to Judge Curt Henderson, who had signed the death warrant in May. Judge Henderson set up a telephone hearing at 3:50 p.m. Two prosecutors were also present on the call. It ended at 4:05 p.m. with Henderson’s announcing he was indeed recalling the warrant—and then recusing himself from the case. Henderson gave no explanation, but he later told Wiercioch that he knew all about the rumors of an affair, since, like Matthew Goeller, he had also served under O’Connell as an assistant district attorney.

38 Prosecutors had immediately appealed to the CCA, saying Judge Henderson had overstepped his authority, but because Henderson had recused himself, there was initially nothing the court could do. In essence the judge had canceled the execution and closed up shop. The prosecutors’ next move was to ask the CCA to order John Ovard, a regional supervisory judge, to reinstate the warrant. At around 9 p.m. the CCA complied, and shortly after that Ovard signed the order. Once he had done so, the only thing keeping Hood alive were his three claims before the Supreme Court.

39 Ellis says that he attempted to keep in close touch with the warden throughout the evening, but since he did not have the warden’s cell phone number, he usually had to settle for leaving a message with his secretary. “I called the warden eight or nine times after six p.m.,” he told me, “to make sure he knew ‘this is pending, that is pending.’”

40 A few minutes after 11 p.m., the high court turned Hood down. At 11:17 p.m. Wiercioch e-filed a last-ditch motion with the CCA to reconsider the ruling on the judicial bias claim.

41 At this very moment, in a room adjoining the death chamber, James Hood sat with reporters, guards, and others, nervously waiting. Next door to that room, Roger Williamson, Debbie Locke, Eva Williamson, William Thomas Riley, and Julie Anne Wallace waited in another room. Counting prison and TDCJ officials, 33 people were on hand to see Hood die.

42 Wiercioch’s final appeal to the CCA likely saved Hood’s life. A condemned inmate can’t be taken out of the holding cell and strapped onto the gurney until all pending claims have been cleared. Wiercioch’s appeal was filed at 11:17 p.m. The CCA denied the appeal at 11:46, but by then it made no difference. In fact, the execution had been called off nearly ten minutes earlier, at 11:37 p.m. TDCJ officials had simply run out of time. It takes more than 23 minutes to take the prisoner from the holding cell, fasten him to the gurney with eight leather straps, find veins in his arms, insert the IVs, bring in the witnesses, let the prisoner say his final words, and administer the sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride, which will sedate him, collapse his lungs, and finally stop his heart. TDCJ public information officer Michelle Lyons explained, “It was determined that there was not enough time for prison officials to follow the proper protocol prior to the warrant expiring.”

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