Monday, August 18, 2008

Texas Death Row: Where Innocence is Irrelevant

On August 21, Texas will execute Jeff Wood for the murder of Kris Keeran, even though there is a consensus that Wood did not murder, intend to murder, or know that a murder was going to take place. Wood was sentenced to death under the Law of Parties, section 7.02 of the Texas Penal Code, which holds co-defendants criminally responsible for the same crime if they acted as conspirators. Put another way, the Law of Parties allows for guilt-by-association. In Wood’s case, he was forced to drive a getaway vehicle after the actual killer, Daniel Reneau, shot Keeran during a convenience store robbery in 1996. In fact, Wood was not even in the building when the killing occurred. Furthermore, Bill Bunker, the store’s assistant manager who helped plot and even encouraged the robbery, was never charged with any crime.

Reneau was executed in 2002, and Keeran’s father has asked that Wood’s sentence be commuted. This week, Jeff’s family and friends, activists, and media from around the world are calling on Governor Perry to spare his life. Perry set a precedent for this last summer when he commuted the sentence of Kenneth Foster, who received the death penalty under similar circumstances. If he is to be consistent, Perry must grant Wood clemency as well. He needs to show the world that he has a conscience, especially after what happened earlier this month, when he went ahead with the executions of two foreign nationals who had been denied consular assistance, a right enshrined in the 1963 Vienna Convention.

But even if Wood’s sentence is commuted, his example raises hard questions about the Law of Parties, indeed about capital punishment itself. The statute is clearly being used in an unjust and abusive manner when bit players pay the ultimate price. It is time to demand that our state’s legislators correct this monstrous injustice.

The examples of Kenneth Foster and Jeff Wood are not flukes in an otherwise fair system, though. Foster and Wood represent the sad tale of most death row inmates: indigence and poverty, inadequate representation, withheld testimony, forced confessions, and so on. Even if capital punishment were fair, its overall application reeks of bias and flaws, especially in Texas, which leads the nation in executions. Furthermore, the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime, and study after study has shown that it actually costs taxpayers more money than life in prison without possibility of parole, after court fees and prison time are factored in.

An anti-death penalty sentiment is gripping the nation. Currently, this is due mainly to the fact that more and more Americans realize there are serious problems when it comes to meting out the ultimate punishment. However, the problem ultimately rests in the very fact that states have been given the right to kill people, not in any particular flaws with the death penalty’s application.

The use of violence, force, or coercion by the state demands a high burden of proof. In this case, it falls on the state to show that the death penalty can be justified only in terms of what is necessary to guarantee the population’s safety or survival. The right to kill people, in other words, is such a powerful concession to the state that it cannot be justified intrinsically. As it happens, there are viable alternatives to the death penalty that also prevent murderers from being released into the general population: namely, life in prison without parole. There is no reason to execute people in the name of protecting others.

It is time that we enter the 21st century—nay, the 20th century—by abolishing capital punishment now and forever. Start by helping to save Jeff Wood this week, but do not let it end there.

DC Tedrow is a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. For more information, please visit the Save Jeff Wood website.

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