An execution last month in Mississippi and another scheduled for this month in Texas have reignited a debate over whether the death penalty should be given to those who participate in killings — but do not personally carry them out.
Dale Bishop was executed July 23 in
Photo courtesy of Gloria Rubac, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement
Demonstrators outside the Alamo in San Antonio protest the scheduled Aug. 21 execution of Texas death-row inmate Jeffery Wood, who faces the death penalty for a 1996 murder despite not carrying it out himself. Wood was convicted under the state’s “felony murder rule,” which allows some accomplices to be prosecuted for first-degree murder.
The laws are part of a broader legal principle in the
| DEATH FOR NON-KILLERS? |
The following states allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those not directly responsible for murder:
|Source: Death Penalty |
Of the 46 states with the felony murder rule, 24 allow prosecutors to use it to seek the death penalty for those not directly responsible for murder, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes capital punishment.
But the center says it is very rare for states to execute accomplices: by its tally, Bishop became only the eighth person in the past 30 years — and the first since 1996 — to be put to death for a murder he did not commit or order (such as commissioned killings, which are counted separately). Wood, in
Civil libertarians, trial lawyers and others have attacked the felony murder rule as an egregious example of unequal justice — particularly when it involves the ultimate punishment for accomplices. While the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s upheld the death penalty for accomplices if they intended their crimes to result in death or displayed “reckless indifference to human life,” critics of the rule say it is often impossible to know the intentions of criminals and that it can result in overly tough sentences. Murder accomplices like Bishop, they say, should never receive tougher penalties than those actually responsible for murder.
But supporters of the rule say states should be authorized to execute felons who knowingly participated in dangerous crimes in which death is a likely and often foreseeable outcome, such as burglary, robbery and rape. Many backers say it can serve as a deterrent to committing such crimes.
Wood’s lawyers also are comparing his case to that of Kenneth Foster, another
Scott Cobb, director of the anti-death penalty Texas Moratorium Network and an organizer of public rallies in support of Wood and against the state’s felony murder rule, said he hopes authorities will spare the inmate. He said he is encouraged because Perry has proven to be “in tune with public opinion, and he’s aware that public opinion doesn’t support killing someone who has such a diminished role as an accomplice.”
But others are pushing for the execution to proceed. The prosecutor who won the capital conviction against Wood, Kerr County Assistant District Attorney Lucy Wilke, has petitioned the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to deny his request for commutation, calling Wood the “mastermind” of the convenience store robbery and murder.
“He should be given life without parole in a maximum-security unit, and perhaps he could serve his time with the man who pulled the trigger,” Grisham said in a statement on his Web site.
The debate in
“The juxtaposition of one man who did not kill being executed and another man who did kill being pardoned just stuck in people’s craw,” said Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi.
But Pete Smith, a spokesman for Barbour, stressed that the governor neither pardoned Graham nor commuted his sentence. “What he did,” Smith said in a telephone interview with Stateline.org, “was issue an indefinite suspension of the sentence” that can be revoked anytime Graham violates the conditions of his release. Smith said the governor, a capital punishment supporter, had no comment on his refusal to spare Bishop.
But many prosecutors and victims’ advocates say cases like Holle’s are far from the norm, and they argue that the felony murder rule is an important tool allowing prosecutors to punish criminals who participate in exceptionally dangerous crimes.
“What do you think is going to happen when a guy goes into a convenience store to rob it and he’s armed with a gun, and your job is to help him commit that crime?” said Mary Lou Leary, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. “It’s a very high-risk activity.”
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Supreme Court stops Mississippi execution (10/31/2007)
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Contact John Gramlich at email@example.com.