Hedayati: In Texas death row case, punishment does not fit crime

Jeff Wood has an appointment he hopes to miss.

On Aug. 24, 2016, at about 6 p.m., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to inject a lethal dose of pentobarbital into Jeff’s veins to stop his heart as punishment for the 1996 murder of Kris Keeran.

What makes this execution controversial is that everyone, including law enforcement and the prosecution, agrees that Wood, the driver of the getaway car, did not kill Kris Keeran inside a Kerrville convenient store on the morning of January 2, 1996. In fact, Daniel Reneau, the actual and sole killer of Keeran, was executed for his crime on June 13, 2002.

Wood was convicted and sentenced to die under Texas’ arcane felony-murder law, more commonly known as the “the law of parties” — for his role as an accomplice to a killing, which he had no reason to anticipate. Under the law of parties, those who conspire to commit a felony, like a robbery, can be held responsible for a subsequent crime, like murder, if it “should have been anticipated.” The law does not require a finding that the person intended to kill. It only requires that the defendant, charged under the law of parties, was a major participant in the underlying felony and exhibited a reckless indifference to human life. In other words, neglecting to anticipate another actor’s commission of murder in the course of a felony is all that is required to make a Texas defendant death-eligible.

Texas is not the only state that holds co-conspirators responsible for one another’s criminal acts. However, it is one of few states that applies the death sentence to them. There have been only 10 people in the U.S. executed under the law of parties — and five of those 10 executions were in Texas. The last such execution was in 2009, where the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) recommended, with a 5-2 vote, that Robert Thompson’s death sentence be commuted to life. Rick Perry rejected that vote and allowed the execution to proceed. Thompson was executed, even though it was his co-defendant, Sammy Butler, who actually killed the victim. Butler was given a life sentence.

When the convenient store robbery took place, Wood was sitting in a car outside, under the impression that Reneau was going into the store to get “road drinks and munchies.” Although it is true that Wood and Reneau had talked about robbing the store at the behest of the manager, Wood had backed out of the idea. Wood had no idea Reneau was carrying a gun and was going to attempt to rob the store. Wood also claims he was forced to drive Reneau away from the crime scene at gunpoint. Wood’s actions before the murder, namely sitting in a car unarmed and unaware that another person was going to commit a robbery, does not constitute reckless indifference to human life.

Even many supporters of capital punishment agree that the Texas law of parties is wholly unfair. In 2009, the Texas Moratorium Network and Wood’s family led an advocacy campaign to end the death penalty for people convicted under the law of parties. The Republican-controlled Texas House overwhelmingly voted in favor of the bill. Unfortunately, the bill died in the Senate after Gov. Perry threatened to veto it. Last year, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence voted again in favor of a bill to exclude the death penalty as punishment in law of parties cases. However, the session ended without an opportunity for a floor vote.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles should recommend that the governor commute Wood’s death sentence to life in prison or a lesser term consistent with Wood’s level of participation in the crime. They have made that recommendation in similar cases, including those of Kenneth Foster in 2007 and Robert Thompson in 2009.

Wood might deserve punishment for driving away from the crime scene, but he does not deserve to die. He has never taken a human life with his own hands.

Hedayati is an attorney and a member of the Texas Moratorium Network Board of Directors. For more information visit: SaveJeffWood.com.

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