When Tim Atkins walked out of Soledad prison, about an hour south of Monterey, California, on Highway 101, he’d spent more of his life behind bars than outside them. He’d never seen a cell phone—in fact, he says that he was confused when he saw an iPhone with “music coming out”—and had never had a credit card. He’d barely driven a car. Now an imposing but soft-spoken 48-year-old man, Atkins was 17 when he was arrested for a shooting in his neighborhood back in 1985. He’d been involved in some illegal activities—mostly stealing car radios to support a drug habit—but he was innocent of the shooting. In fact, he had sold a stolen car stereo that very night in order to get high.
Atkins was accused of robbing Vincente and Maria Gonzalez at gunpoint on New Year’s Eve and fatally shooting Vincente in the chest. Shortly after the murder, Maria said that the man who’d shot her husband and held a gun to the back of her head was short, with bulging eyes. At the time, Atkins was well over six feet tall and weighed 175 pounds. It was only later that Maria picked him out of a six-pack photo array. At the trial, she couldn’t identify Atkins, who was in the courtroom sitting at the defense table. “I know he is here because he behaved very badly,” she said when asked to point out her husband’s killer. During a break, she spoke with the prosecutor, after which she seemed to be able to identify the defendant.
Another woman in the neighborhood, Denise Powell, claimed to have heard Atkins and his friend Ricky Evans bragging about the crime. Picked up by the police, Powell claimed that Atkins had said, “We offed him”—a recollection that would later turn out to be fabricated. She then picked their photos out of a “gang book.” Atkins knew Powell and had seen her that night; she was usually high and was in and out of jail. They had gone out looking for drugs together. The car ride was the only part of her story that was true. Powell later said that she was threatened by the interrogating officer with arrest and jail time unless she could provide some useful information. She never thought that Atkins would get convicted based on her word alone. When asked about Powell, Atkins shrugs; he feels sorry for her because her life hasn’t changed much during his 23 years in prison.
Atkins and Evans were arrested and held in the county jail, where some gang members who were also inmates forced them to fight. But the friends went too easy on each other, so the gang members decided to administer a beating themselves. A few of them jumped from a top bunk onto Evans, who died from the internal injuries sustained during the attack. It’s the one thing Atkins doesn’t like to talk about. “It’s difficult for me,” he says quietly.
Atkins was beaten as well and spent months in the hospital recovering from a broken sternum and broken ribs. (He credits his survival to his larger size.) Upon his release from the hospital, he began serving his sentence: 32 years to life.
In prison, Atkins avoided confrontations and gang activity; he had a remarkably clean record. “Even in prison, I had a counselor who said, ‘You don’t do the stuff that everybody else do,’” Atkins recalled. “This was something I had nothing to do with. I never did nothing like that.” The hardest part of prison, he added, was “enduring the people.”