Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sanders: Another execution is scheduled under flawed law-of-parties provision

Bob Ray Sander's of the Fort-Worth Star Telegram has written a great column about execution of Jeff Wood.

Make a note of this name: Jeffery Lee Wood.

And this date: Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008.

That’s Wood’s scheduled date of execution, two days after his 35th birthday.

Now, go back in time with me.

It was a year ago this month — just outside the prison walls that house the Texas death chamber — when a small group of us staunch death-penalty opponents stood in stunned amazement with the family of a condemned man.

We had just gotten news that Gov. Rick Perry had taken the advice of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and commuted the sentence of Kenneth Foster from death to life in prison. The decree came just a few hours before Foster’s scheduled execution.

Our amazement turned to jubilation on the Huntsville prison grounds that afternoon, not only because Foster’s life had been spared but also because the governor and board had hinted that there were problems with the law under which the inmate had been convicted and sentenced.

Foster had been tried under the "law of parties" designed to treat "conspirators" equally, meaning that all could be considered culpable for the actions of the one who commits a second crime while in the commission of another. Texas is the only state that applies that law in capital cases.

In Foster’s case, he had been riding around with three other men in San Antonio one night when they stopped to talk to a woman. While Foster waited in the car, one of his passengers, Mauriceo Brown, approached the woman’s male companion some distance away.

There was a shot and Brown rushed back to the car and told Foster to drive away. It was then that he learned that Brown had shot the man, later identified as 25-year-old Michael LaHood.

The evidence clearly showed that Foster, while near the scene of the crime, did not and could not have known what his companion would do. Yet, he stood trial with Brown on capital murder charges. Both were convicted and sentenced to death. Brown was executed July 19, 2006.

The governor, in commuting Foster’s sentence, expressed concern that the two defendants had been tried together and suggested that the Legislature should address the law in its next session.

This newspaper editorialized against Foster’s execution and called for the Legislature to re-examine the law of parties.

Wood, convicted under the same law of parties, is set to be executed this week, five months before the next legislative session begins.

His case is more complicated than Foster’s and involves a series of issues that demand his sentence be commuted to life.

Although he was not tried with his co-defendant, a man who’s been executed for the 1996 murder of a Kerrville convenience store operator, prosecutors continued to link him to the killer.

"Daniel Reneau, who coldly murdered Kriss Keeran in the early morning hours of January 2, 1996, has already been executed by the State of Texas for this senseless act," according to a clemency petition submitted to the governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. "Nevertheless, on August 21, 2008, the State seeks to execute Jeffery Wood for the same crime, even though the State does not contend that Mr. Wood shot Keeran. In fact, Mr. Wood was not even in the building when Reneau shot and killed Keeran."

Wood was in on a scheme with Reneau to rob the store with the help of the store’s assistant manager, Bill Bunker, according to the petition. It was to have been an inside job, as Bunker had told the two men where the video recording devices were and how much money was expected to be in the safe.

When Reneau went into the store, Wood remained in a pickup and was later shocked by the sound of a gunshot. Reneau had killed Keeran.

The clemency petition suggests that Wood’s culpability for the crime should lie somewhere between Reneau’s and Bunker’s.

Reneau committed the murder and has been executed for it, but "Bunker — despite being a co-conspirator without whose agreement and encouragement the crime never would have occurred — was never charged with any crime," the petition said.

Other issues include whether Wood was even mentally competent to stand trial. One court said he wasn’t, but he was later declared competent. Although the trial court refused to let him represent himself, he, in effect, would not allow his court-appointed attorneys to do their job.

"Bowing to Mr. Wood’s emotional and irrational insistence, Mr. Wood’s appointed lawyers declined to cross-examine any witnesses or present any evidence on Mr. Wood’s behalf," the petition states. "Mr. Wood’s trial attorneys called Mr. Wood’s actions a 'gesture of suicide’ and objected on moral grounds to participating in the arrangement ordered by the trial court — effectively as legal vessels assisting Mr. Wood’s suicidal ends."

Then, in the punishment phase of the trial, the state called Dr. James Grigson (known widely as "Dr. Death") to the stand to testify that if Wood were not given the death penalty he would continue to be a danger to society. Grigson, who had already been discredited, got his nickname because of the hundreds of times he testified for the state in capital cases.

"Despite having a valid license, Grigson was a medical fraud, although Mr. Wood’s jury did not know it," the petition contends. "In 1995, three years before he testified in Mr. Wood’s trial, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for flagrant ethical violations related to his testimony purporting to predict future dangerousness. Because he was not cross-examined, Mr. Wood’s jury was not aware of this information. Nor did the State elicit it, despite its duty to see that justice is done and to disclose impeachment evidence."

At least 10 state legislators have written the Board of Pardons and Paroles, urging clemency for Wood.

I know the governor gets tired of hearing from me on death-penalty cases, but he must commute this sentence.

It is clear that Wood does not deserve to be executed, and no other person should be put to death under a law that many people believe should never have applied to capital cases.

The least we can do is wait until the Legislature deals with this law in its next session.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

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