Arizona Set to Execute Frank Atwood Despite Possibility of Innocence

by Samuel B. Parker



On May 24th, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency unanimously elected to deny Frank Atwood’s petition for commutation of sentence, reprieve, or pardon. Barring intervention by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Arizona Department of Corrections will proceed with their planned execution of Atwood via lethal injection on June 8th; Atwood will become the 40th person since 1992 to die at the hands of the state government of Arizona.


And yet, there is little substantial or credible evidence to support Atwood’s conviction.


Atwood was convicted of the kidnap and murder of Vicki Lynne Hoskinson, who vanished from her neighborhood on September 17th, 1984. An eyewitness reported having seen a suspicious driver outside of Hoskinson’s school shortly before she went missing and offered police the license plate number, make, and model of a vehicle that matched Atwood’s; law enforcement officers arrested Atwood on September 20th. Until a hiker discovered her remains almost six months later, the only trace of Hoskinson was an abandoned bike that she had been riding at the time of her abduction.


Atwood admitted that he had been in Hoskinson’s neighborhood around the time of her disappearance, but he unequivocally denied any connection to the incident. Despite his protests, he was an easy target with a criminal record, which included kidnapping and child molestation. Investigators focused almost exclusively on him. Prosecutors charged Atwood with the abduction of Hoskinson on September 27th and later charged him with her murder.


What followed was a gross miscarriage of justice.


Due to the total lack of both eyewitness testimony and physical evidence inside of Atwood’s car that linked him to the crime, prosecutors turned to accident reconstruction experts. The experts maintained that paint on the front bumper and damage to the gravel pan of Atwood’s vehicle were respectively consistent with the paint and pedals on Hoskinson’s bike. These claims, coupled with the aforementioned circumstantial evidence, were apparently sufficient in the eyes of the jury; Atwood was convicted and sentenced to death.


As it turns out, even if the shaky evidence had decisively indicated Atwood’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the methods by which that evidence was collected and the conduct of the people who collected it have since been called into question.


The prosecution’s case was predicated almost entirely upon the assumption that Atwood had struck Hoskinson’s bike with his car. However, investigators concede that the bike displayed no conclusive signs of such an impact. Even more damning, several FBI agents and police detectives testified that they observed no paint on the front bumper when the vehicle was impounded. Photographs also demonstrate that the gravel pan was not significantly dented at the time that the car was taken into custody, reinforcing the observations of the accident specialist who initially inspected Atwood’s vehicle and noted no structural damage to the undercarriage. Analysis of additional images suggests that the bumper and gravel pan may have been entirely removed and then reinstalled by investigators, despite their insistence to the contrary. Consequently, Atwood’s attorneys have accused the state of Arizona of tampering with or manufacturing evidence against Atwood during the accident reconstruction process. Prosecutors, of course, reject this allegation. But the assertion has yet to be reviewed against modern standards of scientific testing.


Moreover, the condition of Hoskinson’s remains presents a serious challenge to the prosecution’s timeline. In order to discredit his verifiable alibi, prosecutors tried to explain how Atwood could have disposed of her body and spent the evening at a local trailer park later that same day. They theorized that Atwood drove into the desert, hastily scattered the remains, and then fled. But the presence of adipocere on Hoskinson’s remains indicates that they were likely buried at some point before they were scattered: a deed that Atwood was not gone long enough to have performed. The complete absence of any evidence that Hoskinson was ever in Atwood’s car is even more compelling.


That state of Arizona has refused to explore alternative viable theories, leaving vital questions unanswered. Why did multiple eyewitnesses recount seeing Hoskinson at the mall with a woman, who referred to the girl as “Vicki,” hours after Atwood had supposedly abducted and killed her? Why did investigators ignore prior reports of attempted kidnapping in the same neighborhood at a time when Atwood was known to be in California? These reports involved a dark vehicle similar to Atwood’s and a woman who resembled the description of the woman at the mall. Why did detectives fail to follow up when Anette Fries, purported to be the woman who was seen at the mall with Hoskinson, lied about or misremembered her whereabouts on that day?


Can the state of Arizona, in good conscience, truly consider this case closed?


The defects of the death penalty are well documented. It fails to deter violent crime. It is more expensive than its alternatives. It is arbitrarily applied, and thus disproportionately affects people of color, men, and the impoverished. It confers a horrifying and tyrannical prerogative upon government officials to determine who ought to die, why, how, and when. It prioritizes reciprocal and retributive violence — bloodthirsty revenge — over restorative justice and peace. Its firing squads, electric chairs, and deadly chemical cocktails typify “cruel and unusual punishment” and violate the natural rights and inherent dignity of human beings. The state of Arizona, in particular, boasts a horrific history of brutally botched executions.


Capital punishment also victimizes innocent people. Since 1973, more than 185 death row inmates have been exonerated when new evidence has materialized or old evidence has been reexamined. They were the fortunate ones; for the dead, posthumous vindication is too little, too late.


Frank Atwood may just be one of those innocent people. But even his culpability could not warrant his death. Atwood’s life has a fundamental value that no conviction could ever vacate. His execution would serve only to advance a culture of aggressive violence: reducing his life to a mere bargaining chip used to satisfy the base demand of an eye for an eye.


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