Monday, December 13, 1999
AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General John Cornyn offers the following information on Robert Ronald Atworth who is scheduled to be executed after 6 p.m., Tuesday, December 14th.
FACTS OF THE CRIME
On March 30, 1995, Robert Atworth and his common-law wife Collette formally registered their marriage in Collin County, Texas. Atworth was unemployed at the time, and a recent automobile accident had left him relying on a rental car for transportation. On Saturday, April 1, 1995, Atworth and Collette drove the rental car to a nightclub in Dallas for an evening of drinking and dancing. Atworth typically stored a 9 millimeter handgun in whatever vehicle he was driving at the time, and possessed this weapon in his rental car that evening.
In the early morning hours of April 2nd, the two left the nightclub in the rental car, taking Central Expressway to their apartment. Atworth exited the highway in Richardson, Texas, at the exit which would take them to their apartment. At the traffic light, which controlled the intersection of the service road and the cross road, Atworth pulled up next to a vehicle occupied by Thomas Carlson. Carlson was alone in his vehicle and was slumped onto the steering wheel of his car. Smoke drifted out from under the hood of Carlson's car. Atworth exited his vehicle and approached Carlson. Carlson appeared to be incapacitated and incoherent, either due to illness or intoxication. It was later learned that Carlson had spent the evening drinking with friends at a Dallas area restaurant. Carlson was well-dressed in a suit and necktie, and had been wearing a watch and a pinky ring when he left the restaurant at about 4:00 a.m.
Atworth convinced Carlson to follow him to a nearby gas station. Instead of stopping at the gas station, Atworth directed Carlson into the parking lot of a nearby health club. There, Atworth again exited his vehicle and approached Carlson. Carlson opened the hood of his car and joined Atworth at the front of his vehicle. Atworth then informed Carlson that he was an off-duty police officer, asked to see Carlson's driver's license, and told Carlson to place his hands on the car. Atworth produced a cellular telephone and appeared to place several calls. Atworth then directed Carlson to return to his car and start the vehicle. Carlson complied and Atworth joined him in the vehicle. After conversing with Carlson for several minutes, Atworth exited Carlson's vehicle and approached Collette. Atworth told Collette to follow him to the back of the health club. Atworth returned to Carlson's vehicle and drove the vehicle to the back of the health club near a cluster of trash dumpsters. Atworth parked Carlson's vehicle on one side of the dumpsters and ordered Collette to park the rental car on the other side of the dumpsters. Collette was parked where she could not see Carlson's vehicle. After waiting approximately ten minutes, Collette heard what she thought was the sound of three gunshots. A minute later, Atworth emerged from behind the dumpsters, entered the rental car, and, without comment, drove to the couple's nearby apartment.
At their apartment, Atworth gathered various household items, changed into dark clothing, directed Collette to change into dark clothing, and informed Collette that they were returning to the scene. Upon their return to the dumpster area, Atworth produced a set of keys and opened the door and trunk of Carlson's vehicle. Atworth ordered Collette to remove all items from inside the vehicle, then he walked behind the dumpsters. Several minutes later, Atworth returned and told Collette he needed her assistance. Atworth directed Collette to Carlson's body and the two attempted to place his body inside one of the dumpsters. When that failed, the two concealed the body with trash bags they had retrieved from the dumpsters. The two then left the scene, driving both vehicles back to their apartment.
At their apartment, Atworth rummaged through Carlson's possessions which included his wallet and a handgun that had been found between the seats of Carlson's vehicle. In displaying the victim's handgun to Collette, Atworth said, "Look honey, now you have a gun of your own." Atworth instructed Collette to replace the license plate on Carlson's car with one from one of their own cars, then to take a shower. As she was about to enter the shower, Atworth entered the bathroom and said, "Guess what I've got?" He then held out what appeared to be a severed finger.
Carlson's body was discovered later on the day of April 2nd. His watch, pinky ring, tie, and shoes were missing. Four gunshot wounds were observed: two to the head, one to the chest, and one to the groin. Shallow lacerations covered his body and had been inflicted both before and after death. Lacerations to Carlson's neck and chin were described as controlling wounds, which are superficial wounds but indicative of a knife being held to the area to prevent escape or obtain compliance with any demands. Carlson's arms and hands contained defensive wounds consistent with attempting to ward off a knife attack, and the finger on which Carlson normally wore his pinky ring had been removed. Evidence at the scene also indicated that the body had been dragged from one location to another. Four 9 millimeter shell casings were recovered at the scene. Bullets and bullet fragments were recovered at the scene and from Carlson's body.
Atworth was arrested the following day, April 3rd, while attempting to burglarize the residence of an acquaintance in Garland, Texas. At the time of his arrest, Atworth was in possession of two handguns (a 9 millimeter and a 380) and two knifes, one of which was an illegal "butterfly" knife. The 9 millimeter was determined to be the weapon that fired the bullet fragments recovered from the victim's body. Various business cards bearing Carlson's name, various credit cards bearing Atworth's name, and a hacksaw blade were found in the vehicle that Atworth had apparently driven to the scene of the attempted burglary, Carlson's vehicle. DNA testing of blood found on the hacksaw blade and the boots Atworth was wearing at the time of his arrest matched the victim's blood to the exclusion of others in a ratio greater than the world's population.
Shortly after his arrest, Atworth confessed to the instant murder. Atworth stated that he took the victim's various items before the he left the area the first time in case "somebody else came along and got the body first." At various times during his confession, Atworth referred to himself in the third person and insisted that the murder was committed by his alternate personality whom he called "Nino." Atworth also claimed, at various times, to have killed the victim in self-defense.
Carlson was 56 years old at the time of his murder. He had been employed as an insurance executive for most of his career. After living away from the Dallas area for some time, Carlson had just recently returned to the Dallas area and was living with his daughter and her husband.
On April 25, 1995, a grand jury in Dallas County, Texas, indicted Atworth for the capital offense of murdering Thomas Carlson in the course of committing robbery, which occurred on April 2, 1995. A reindictment for this offense was returned by the grand jury on March 4, 1996. Atworth was tried before a jury upon a plea of not guilty, and on June 13, 1996, the jury found him guilty of the capital offense. Following a separate punishment hearing, the jury answered affirmatively the first special sentencing issue and negatively the second special sentencing issue. In accordance with state law, the trial court (the Criminal District Court No. 1 of Dallas County, Texas) assessed Atworth's punishment at death.
Because he was sentenced to death, appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was automatic. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Atworth's conviction and sentence on April 14, 1999. Meanwhile, while his direct appeal was pending, Atworth filed an application for state writ of habeas corpus with the convicting court. On March 22, 1999, the Court of Criminal Appeals received a letter from Atworth stating that he wished he waive all appeals. On May 12, 1999, the trial court held a hearing on this matter, and Atworth repeated his insistence of dropping all appeals. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court appointed two mental health experts to examine Atworth. Both experts subsequently concluded that Atworth was competent to waive his appeals, and, on June 16, 1999, the trial court so found. On September 8, 1999, the Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Atworth's application for state writ of habeas corpus.
PRIOR CRIMINAL HISTORY
At the punishment phase of trial, Heidi Snedecker, testified that she met Atworth in 1986 on a visit to Florida. Atworth later moved to where she lived in New York. Eventually the two married and returned to Florida. Snedecker described Atworth as controlling, and stated he once shot at her with a 38 pistol. She had seen Atworth slash the car tire of a man he was angry at, shoplift clothing articles, and smoke marijuana. At one point during their marriage, Atworth began selling marijuana. When Snedecker and their daughter left Atworth in 1991, Atworth began selling acid (LSD). The two divorced in 1992 but married again in 1994.
Gale Solod met Atworth in Florida shortly after she had graduated from high school in 1992. A relationship developed, and the two began living together. Atworth soon became controlling and domineering. Atworth sold marijuana out of their house and was eventually arrested and placed on probation. In 1993, the two moved to the Dallas area. One evening, the two had an argument. Atworth produced a 9 millimeter pistol, pointed it at her, and told her if she said one more word he would kill her. She said nothing else. In 1994, Atworth returned to Florida and was placed in jail for violating his probation. When he subsequently returned to Texas, Solod informed Atworth that she wanted her car back from him. In response, Atworth produced a handgun and pointed it at her, threatening to kill her then himself. In fear of that, she continued to see Atworth. Following his arrest for the instant murder, Atworth telephoned her and told her various stories regarding the offense. First he told her that he did not know anything about the offense, then he said that Collette did it, then he said that he did it in self-defense.
Brent Saska, a former boyfriend of Collette's, related that Atworth physically confronted him several times and told him to leave Dallas or he would kill him. During one of these episodes in October 1994, Atworth produced a pistol, chambered a round into it, then placed the pistol against Saska's ribs. After another similar incident involving Atworth and an accomplice in January 1995, Saska moved back to Oklahoma.
A Fort Lauderdale, Florida, police officer arrested Atworth in August 1985, while Atworth was attempting to break into his mother's house. When initially confronted by the responding officers, Atworth became violent and was ultimately arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer. In March 1993, a West Palm Beach, Florida, police officer was executing a search warrant for drugs at a condominium. Atworth was arrested inside the residence. On the coffee table next to him was .380 automatic handgun. The officer also found two other handguns, a large amount of ammunition, four and a half ounces of high grade marijuana, drug ledgers, drug paraphernalia, and $1,500 cash. A Florida probation officer testified that Atworth had been on probation at various times for grand theft, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, trespass, and criminal mischief.
Collette testified at the punishment phase of trial that Atworth sold drugs, mostly marijuana, while she lived with him. During their relationship, Atworth forced her to engage in anal intercourse on several occasions. Collette stated that when she told Atworth that she was going to leave him, he pulled a gun, pinned her to the floor, put the gun behind her right ear, and threatened to kill her. After she begged for her life, Atworth informed her he would not kill her. Collette also described an incident where Atworth shot at another vehicle, several times, as they were driving down the highway.
DRUGS AND/OR ALCOHOL
There was evidence reflecting the use of alcohol and/or drugs leading up to the instant offense.
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If this execution is carried out, it will be the 198th execution since executions resumed in Texas in December 1982 and the 34th since General Cornyn took office. This case was handled by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Bates of the Attorney General's Capital Litigation Division.
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