Justice

Texas Is About to Execute a Man Who Didn't Kill Anybody

Everyone agrees a Texas man Jeffrey Lee Wood didn't kill anyone, but due to a Texas law, he's scheduled to die this month anyway.

In 1996, Wood went to a Texaco in Kerrville, Texas with a man he's only know for a few months, according to The Washington Post. He sat outside the convenience store in a pick up truck while a homeless man named Daniel Reneau went inside and shot and killed the store clerk.

Wood, along with the convenience store's assistant manager and Reneau, had previously planned to steal a safe from the store but then abandoned the plan, or so Wood thought, according to the The Washington Post. According to local reports, Wood later claimed that he thought Reneau was only there to buy food.

But even though Wood didn't pull the trigger or plan to kill the store clerk, under the Texas "law of parties," Wood was convicted along with Reneau of capital murder and sentenced to death.

The "law of parties" states the following:


"If, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it, if the offense was committed in furtherance of the unlawful purpose and was one that should have been anticipated as a result of the carrying out of the conspiracy."

This means that even though Wood was only involved with the initial planning of the robbery, and wasn't inside the store when the shooting took place, he was deemed responsible for the murder. Reneau was executed in 2002; Wood is scheduled to die on August 24.

Scott Cobb from the Texas Moratorium Network, an anti-death penalty advocacy group, told ATTN that the "law of parties" unjustly entangled Wood in a capital murder conviction.

"Here in Texas the problem is that with the 'law of parties' you don't need to have any intent to kill anyone," he said. "You just have to have conspired to commit one crime."

Cobb said that the "law of parties" shouldn't even apply to Wood in the first place because he and Reneau's other co-conspirator dropped out of the plan.

"He was convicted of the robbery conspiracy, even though he backed out of it, and at the time it happened, he didn't know there was going to be a murder," said Cobb.

 

There's also a question of whether Wood could have even planned the robbery in the first place.

He has an IQ of 80, and in high school, could only read at a fifth grade level, according to The Washington Post. His IQ score is on the border of mentally disabled and on the low end of normal. Wood was initially deemed to be incompetent to stand trial, but after 15 days at a mental hospital for evaluations, he was released and sent to trial.

Cobb said that Wood wasn't rational during his sentencing hearing.

"Jeff Wood told his lawyers not to do anything during the punishment phase, and that's not rational behavior," he said.

Political science professor Austin D. Sarat from Amherst College told ATTN: that this kind of behavior can be common for mentally and emotionally challenged defendants who are still deemed competent to stand trial.

"America's death rows, lots of the folks on death rows suffer from some kind of emotional or intellectual disabilities," he said. "Part of the difficulty is that they're not able to aid in their own defense."

Further, telling a jury that a defendant has emotional or mental challenges can make things harder for them, not easier.

"Often juries will take intellectual and emotional disabilities as a sign of dangerousness not a sign of disability," he said.

Why does the U.S. continue to execute people like Jeffrey Lee Wood?

There's a growing body of evidence that says the death penalty does nothing to stop crime, but University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour said political gridlock has allowed capital punishment to persist.

He relayed the story of President Bill Clinton, who was at the time the governor of Arkansas, leaving the 1992 campaign trail to make sure a mentally disabled man named Ricky Ray Rector was executed.

"Rector was so mentally disabled, when the guard asked him about his last meal, he asked the guard to save him a piece of pie so he could eat it after his execution, " said Armour.

Armour said that, whether the death penalty deters crime or not, it can make people feel safer and politicians know that.

"They support the death penalty because as a politician that's how you signal you're tough on crime," he said. "That's how politics has been done for the last 30 years."

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