The Law of Parties and Jeffrey Wood

Earlier this week I wrote about the Stand Your Ground law that originated in Florida in 2005, and has since been passed in 22 other states.  I find this to be one of the most dangerous laws on the books and subject to wide abuses as we saw in the case of Trayvon Martin.  I have now found one that is at least equally bad, if not worse.  It currently exists in only one state, Texas. (What is it with Texas these days?)

The law is called the Law of Parties and under this law, prosecutors are not required to prove that a defendant had any part in committing a crime, or even intended to commit it. Jurors only need to find that there was a plan to commit a crime and that the defendant should have anticipated that the crime would occur. What ever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?  Worse yet, a person found guilty under this law can be executed, as Texas is one of 32 states in the U.S. that still use capital punishment.  And that is exactly what is set to happen on 24 August, a mere 11 days from today.

Briefly, before I get into the specifics of the case, allow me to state my opinion on capital punishment.  I am against it.  There was a time that I had mixed feelings about it, thinking, on the one hand, that some people were so evil that they needed to be removed entirely from the face of the earth, but on the other hand, death being a pretty permanent thing, fearing that someday we might actually execute an innocent person, which would be even worse.  My mind was changed a few years ago when, as a part of my ongoing education, I took a course in ‘wrongful convictions’.  I was amazed at the number of times innocent people have been sent to prison*, some even to death row, who were exonerated years, or even decades later by new technology, such as DNA, or by witnesses or the guilty party coming forward with the truth.  It is horrible to think of an innocent person spending years of his life in prison, but even worse if we executed that person, then later found he was innocent.  It was at that point that I decided I cannot support capital punishment under any circumstances.

Wood

Jeffrey Lee Wood

The man who is scheduled to be put to death on 24 August is Jeffrey Lee Wood.  Mr. Wood has been in prison since 1996 for the death of a man he did not kill — and, by some accounts, did not know was going to be killed. In January 1996, Mr. Wood, then 22,  was sitting in his pickup truck outside a convenience store in Kerryville, Texas, waiting for Daniel Reneau who he believed had gone inside to buy snacks and drinks.

Although there was an earlier plan between Mr. Wood, Reneau, and several others to steal a safe from the convenience store, the other collaborators had backed out of the plan, and unbeknownst to Wood, Reneau had taken it upon himself to steal the safe anyway.  Upon heading to the store, Wood had admonished Reneau not to take his gun, but Reneau did so anyway, without Wood’s knowledge. Reneau apparently entered the store with the intent of stealing the safe and in the process shot and killed the clerk, Kris Keeran.

Wood’s attorney, Jared Tyler, said his client could not have anticipated the death of Keeran, and was unfairly held responsible for Reneau’s actions and decisions. Nonetheless, both men were convicted of capital murder and Reneau was executed in 2002.  Wood’s attorney has filed a writ of habeas corpus — used to review the legality of someone’s imprisonment — asking the state’s highest court for a new sentencing hearing for Wood, saying the punishment should fit the crime. His punishment is based, in part, on “false and misleading” testimony from a psychiatrist who did not personally examine Wood.

Mr. Wood is considered developmentally delayed, and with an IQ of only 80, is borderline mentally disabled.  As such, his attorney claims he should have been declared unfit to stand trial.  He was initially admitted to a mental hospital for psychological evaluation, and a psychologist testified that Wood was delusional, unable to grasp the issues about his case and the reality facing him. He was released from the hospital, somehow found competent to stand trial, and the psychologist’s evaluation was withheld from the jury, who found him guilty of capital murder under the Law of Parties.

Since 1976, there have been 1,437 executions in the United States. More than a third of them have taken place in Texas, which has executed 537 people over that period. Executions of people who did not directly kill the victim are extremely rare: The Death Penalty Information Center lists just 10 such instances that didn’t involve contract killings. Half were in Texas under the law of parties. In 2009, the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 2267, which would have eliminated the death penalty in Law of Parties cases, but the bill failed in the State Senate.  Since it was not retroactive, it would not have helped people like Jeffrey Wood who were already on death row.

Earlier this month, 16 Roman Catholic bishops from across the state wrote a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott urging him to grant a stay on Wood’s execution. “Mr. Wood has never taken a human life in his own hands,” the letter reads. “He was not even in the building at the time of the crime. It is extremely rare for any person in the history of modern death penalty to have been executed with as little culpability and participation in the taking of a life as Mr. Wood.”

Abbott

Texas Governor Greg Abbott

Whether or not you support capital punishment, I think we would all agree that executions based on the Law of Parties, executions of people who simply did not take another’s life, and perhaps had no knowledge of a crime, are just wrong.  Morally, ethically, socially wrong.  It is to be hoped that enough Texans are outraged and raise their voices so that the governor will have little choice but to issue a stay of execution before 24 August.  There are rallies and petitions circulating throughout the State of Texas to try to sway the governor. Hopefully Governor Abbott is a man of good conscience and chooses to do the right thing, though from what I know of him, I have my doubts.  He is a conservative Republican who has sued the Obama administration over a dozen times.  He is sometimes referred to as Imperial Governor Abbot and was recently accused of threatening law enforcement if they did not support his harsh immigration policies. Humanitarian may not be his middle name.

The Law of Parties, first passed in 1974, makes no sense to me, and seems too open to abuse.  If you think back to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.  If the Law of Parties had been operative in Colorado at that time, might the parents of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have been found guilty and sentenced to death, based on the fact that they “should have known” what their sons were planning?  I shudder to think of the potential abuses of this law.  Thankfully, no other states have a Law of Parties, and I would hope this case causes Texas to overturn theirs.

*  The Innocence Project  is an excellent source of information about wrongrul convictions and their work to exonerate the innocent.

3 thoughts on “The Law of Parties and Jeffrey Wood

  1. I agree with you on capital punishment. This part of the Texas penal code should be abolished…it is very specific and clearly stated. Had this law been enacted in earlier times it would have complicated many lynchings back in the day. The point apparently is one of COMPLICITY…to adequately and efficiently punish perpetrators other than the official “hatchet man” i.e. the person who drives the get-away car, buys the weapon which is subsequently used in the commission of the crime, or has knowledge of the plot or intention of the crime.
    http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/docs/PE/htm/PE.7.htm

    The issue with Jeffrey Wood seems to me to be his mental capacity…he is not quite “mentally retarded” and his 80 IQ would qualify his ability as “impaired,” but such handicap is specifically denied in the Texas “Law of Parties” legal code. I am not familiar with the various state codes…but I do know that the state of Ohio Revised Code does not provide for persons that are MRDD (mental retardation developmental disabilities) and for legal and judicial purposes those persons must be considered “insane” and the application of the law is made accordingly.

    The Crime of Capital Punishment is that the inherent danger of error is too great, and even ONE “accidental execution” can’t be allowed in a decent society.

    I suspect that Texas is still operating out of “Frontier Law” from back in the lawless days. Criminals went out and committed murder and other crimes….and vigilantes went out after them in Posses—or Lynch Mobs—and strung them up to the nearest tree. Guilt or innocence was no criteria.

    Uh…if our Mr. Trump gets elected we can deal with all kinds of law-breakers out at Guantanomo. Speaking of which, there was/is an agreement/treaty which would have returned that property to Cuba in 1999, under jurisdiction of the Spanish American War. But that’s another tale…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This law is absurd and if this weren’t Texas I would doubt your story. But it is Texas and that pretty much sums it up. I have written about capital punishment several times and find myself focusing on the same key point: human fallibility. We simply cannot justify killing an innocent person in the name of “justice,” and the notion that someone else who “should have anticipated” the crime is also guilty is, quite simply, insane. The use of the conditional in the phrase opens Pandora’s Box.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, when this story first came to my attention, I thought “Nah, no way, it must be either false or an exaggeration”. So I checked numerouse, reliable sources, and found it to be, sadly, quite true. There’s actually even more about the psychologist, etc., but I tried to stick to the main point, which is that this is a terrible law. Yes, Pandora’s Box sums it up well.

      Liked by 2 people

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