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.
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.”
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.