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Dave Atwood

Working against the death penalty in Texas has been a series of revelations. The first revelation was how flawed and biased the criminal justice system is. If you are poor, black or mentally disabled, you are at a great disadvantage.

A second revelation was that, because of imperfections in the system, the sentencing to death of an innocent person is a very real possibility. - Even worse, there are people both in and out of the legal system who are not that concerned that an innocent person might be executed!

A third revelation, the one which is the subject of this article, was that rehabilitation currently carries no weight in the Texas criminal justice system when it comes to capital murder. This became especially evident when Karla Faye Tucker was executed.

Traditionally, we encourage people who have committed crimes to become rehabilitated, and we reward them when they do so. This is common sense and good policy. Not so when it comes to capital murder. Regardless of whether you have grown up, become educated, developed job skills, got off drugs and alcohol or found religion, if you have committed capital murder and received the sentence of death in Texas, you are bound to die unless there is some miraculous intervention. There is no mercy in Texas.

James Allridge III is an African-American man who has been on death row for almost 14 years. James, along with his brother Ronald, was sentenced to death for the 1985 slaying of a convenience store clerk. Ronald was executed in 1995, but James still resides on Texas death row where he has become an accomplished artist and poet and has a thriving greeting card line. The money he earns from selling his original greeting cards goes to his legal defense.

James wrote a chapbook titled "Deadly Executioner" which is a collection of poetry and prose dedicated to the men executed by the State of Texas. He now has 350 large works of art in private collections and his work of fine art have been displayed in Washington, D.C. and in Europe.

I recently interviewed James and would like to share some of his words here.


D.A. - James you have been on Texas death row for almost 14 years and have become an accomplished artist during that time. Why do you do your art?

J.A. - I do my art because it makes me feel alive! Imagine being able to take a blank sheet of paper and create a thing of beauty that is admired and appreciated by others the world over. My cards have sold in over 13 different countries.

D.A. - That is a huge accomplishment for someone in your position.

J.A. - Thank you. It is, but I just feel blessed to have had the opportunity to discover these hidden, God-given talents. So many people are so caught up in the day-to-day struggles of life, they never take the time or just simply miss the opportunity to do so.

D.A. - If you could do it all over again, what would you do?

J.A. - I think everybody has things that they would change about their lives if they could. It would be ideal to be able to learn without the pain of having to live with the mistakes we make, wouldn't it? But although I'm happy with who I am now, if I could change just one thing ... I would change the fact that someone had to lose their life for me to become the person I am today.

D.A. - James, to me you are clearly a rehabilitated person. How did that actually happen?

J.A. - Time, age and maturity for sure, but I am basically the same now as I was when I was out there. I had never been involved in criminal activities before. I was a workaholic then - usually working two jobs - I'm a workaholic now. I was an honor student in high school and a three-year letterman on the tennis team. I had managed my own business and had been in management at several fast food establishments. I had done a great number of positive things before this incident.

D.A. - Then how did you get involved in criminal activity?

J.A. - I'm not making excuses, but there was a lot of pressure from my older brother Ronald. Ronald was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and had behavioral problems all his life. When it came to the trial, Ronald and I were treated the same. One thing that bothered me during the trial was that I was decleared a continuing threat to society who would kill again, an aggravating factor which can lead to the death penalty. My disciplinary record on death row shows that I'm not a dangerous person.

D.A. - Does the death penalty serve any useful purpose in your opinion?

J.A. - The death penalty serves no purpose other than for vengeance and it only continues the cycle of violence because it causes yet another family pain and suffering. I know that's the classic textbook answer, but from seeing my own family suffer behind the execution of my brother, I know it to be true. I know that each time my family comes to visit me, it is a constant reminder of where Ronald met his death. Each time they come inside the prison walls, it is like going to visit his grave. And then to know that quite possibly that their next eldest son faces the same fate ... (bowing and shaking his head). Yeah, no one should have to experience the death of a loved one in any way, but especially in a planned and methodical manner such as this.

D.A. - You have had three execution dates and came within five days of being executed in 1995. Can you describe what that was like?

J.A. - (sighing) Well, I was still a bit numb because my brother had just been executed in June, so I was dealing with that. I thought I would get a stay, but sure got anxious as I got closer to the date. I am not really afraid now. We all have to face death, like it or not, in one way or the other. I worry more about how I live. Samuel Johnson once said, "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short of time."

D.A. - James, what role does "hope" have in this process? Do you have any hope?

J.A. - I do have hope despite my situation. But I think that you should never take away someone's hope because it destroys the soul and can create a monster that noone is going to want to deal with. I think that everyone, no matter what they have done, should be given the opportunity to become rehabilitated and eventually be given their freedom. The death penalty, and for that matter, life without parole, destroy all hope.

D.A. - If roles were reversed and you had a loved one murdered, would you want to see someone die for what they did?

J.A. - No. I certainly wouldn't want to see anyone executed. I would think that anyone who would want to watch someone die - for whatever reason - has blood lust themselves. People, all people, make mistakes. Some are just worse and more severe than others, but all mistakes nonetheless. The true test of character is when you turn those mistakes into something positive and they make you a better person because of it. I know I'm a better person.

D.A. - James, thank you for expressing these thoughts for others to read. I am proud to count you as a friend.

J.A. - You are most welcome.

End of interview

While I oppose the death penalty in all cases, I feel very strong that rehabilitated people like James Allridge III should not be executed. What purpose does their execution serve other than to fulfill the vengeful needs of society? Wouldn't it be better to reward those who have become rehabilitated with, at the very minimum, a life sentence where they can make a contribution to society to make up for the wrong they have done?

Dave Atwood, President Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.