HOUSTON, Aug. 29 — Kenneth Foster has a date on Thursday with the executioner’s needle. Not for killing anyone himself, but for what he was doing — and might have been thinking — the night in 1996 when he was 19 and a sidekick gunned down a San Antonio law student.
Ensnared in a Texas law that makes accomplices subject to the death penalty, Mr. Foster, 30, is to become the third death row inmate this week, and the 403rd since capital punishment resumed in Texas in 1982, to give his life for a life taken.
But unlike most others condemned to death in this state, Mr. Foster, a former gang member and aspiring musician and now a prison poet from San Antonio, is not a murderer in the usual sense. He was convicted and sentenced to die for abetting a killing — 80 feet away — that he might, or might not, have had reason to anticipate.
The gunman is dead, executed last year. Two accomplices are serving life terms.
Now, failing a last-minute reprieve, Mr. Foster, the group’s driver in a robbery spree — who argues that he never was party to the murder — is facing lethal injection. His guilt, affirmed so far in every appeal, including five turned away by the United States Supreme Court, hinges in large part on difficult questions of awareness and intention.
Other states also hold co-conspirators responsible for one another’s criminal acts in a so-called law of parties. But few of those states have a death penalty. And no other state executes anybody on the scale of Texas.
With polls showing capital punishment still enjoying majority support in Texas and around the country, but by dwindling margins, the Foster case has spurred vigils and protests from abroad to the death house in Huntsville, as well as a backlash by victims’ rights advocates who still mourn the law student, Michael LaHood Jr., slain at 25.
It has also blurred concepts of guilt and innocence. If Mr. Foster is not legally guilty of murder, as his lawyer, Keith S. Hampton, and supporters contend, many find it hard to pronounce him blameless.
“I’d hate to use the word ‘innocent,’ ” said his father, Kenneth Foster Sr., a former heroin addict who told a church audience in Houston on Saturday that he used to take his baby son with him on drug runs and petty crimes. He said his son “should be punished to some degree, but not put to death.”
At the heart of the case is Texas’ law of parties, under which those conspiring to commit one felony, like a robbery, can all be held responsible for an ensuing crime, like murder, if it “should have been anticipated.”
In 1982, in Edmund v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court found that the Constitution barred the death penalty for co-conspirators who did not themselves kill.
But five years later in Tison v. Arizona, the justices carved out an exception, ruling that the Eighth Amendment did not forbid the execution of a defendant “whose participation in a felony that results in murder is major and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference.”
According to evidence in the case, on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 1996, Mr. Foster had borrowed his grandfather’s rented white Cavalier and was driving three companions — Julius Steen, Dewayne Dillard and Mauriceo Brown — on a robbery spree through San Antonio. Mr. Steen and Mr. Brown, with Mr. Dillard’s gun, held up four people.
After midnight, they trailed two cars to a street where Mr. LaHood had just driven home, followed by a companion, Mary Patrick. Ms. Patrick and Mr. Steen exchanged some remarks. Mr. Brown took the gun, chased Mr. LaHood and shot him dead. Ms. Patrick later characterized it as a robbery.
Mr. Foster and his companions fled but were soon stopped by the police. Mr. Foster denied participating in the earlier robberies or the shooting, claiming the group had been out looking for clients for his music business.
He was tried with Mr. Brown, who was also convicted and was executed in July 2006. Mr. Steen agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for a life sentence. Mr. Dillard is serving life for a separate murder committed with Mr. Steen.
Mr. Steen testified he did not believe that Mr. Foster had known that Mr. LaHood would be robbed, although Mr. Steen said, “I would say I kind of thought it.”
Later Mr. Dillard testified in Mr. Foster’s appeals, claiming that before they reached the LaHood house, Mr. Foster sought to end the night’s spree so he could return the car to his grandfather. Therefore, Mr. Foster’s lawyer, Mr. Hampton, argued, his client lacked the mindset to be legally culpable for the killing.
Mr. Hampton also contended that Mr. Steen and Mr. Dillard had been improperly withheld as crucial witnesses for the defense, and that mitigating testimony about Mr. Foster’s upbringing had not been presented.
“I was in jail at the time he got arrested,” said Kenneth Foster Sr., adding that a strategy of portraying his son as churchgoing and well-raised had backfired.
“One of the jurors said he should have known better,” the elder Mr. Foster said. “They never called me. If the mitigating evidence had been put on, he never would be on death row.”
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Not the Killer, but Still Facing a Date With the Executioner
Thats the title of Ralph Blumenthal's article on NY Times.