A judge in Kerrville will only consider pleadings and evidence already in the record for the death sentence appeal of Jeffery L. Wood, one of two men convicted of capital murder for the 1996 robbery and slaying of a store clerk there.
In staying Wood’s execution last August, the state Court of Criminal Appeals directed the trial court to review defense claims that Wood was denied due process because the sentence was based on false testimony and fake scientific evidence.
The last-minute reprieve was cheered by supporters of Wood, whose case has garnered widespread coverage due what some cast as the overzealous prosecution of a defendant of limited intellect who initially was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Rather than admitting new evidence into the record or conducting a hearing, state District Judge Keith Williams on Wednesday directed both sides to submit by March 29 their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law concerning Wood’s writ for habeus corpus.
“The court hereby determines that there are no existing controverted, previously unresolved factual issues material to the legality of applicant’s confinement,” Williams’ order says, in part.
Months after Jeff Wood narrowly and temporarily avoided execution for a murder he didn’t commit, his case has motivated Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to call for death penalty reform.
Wood, 43, was convicted in the 1996 murder of Kriss Keeran, who was fatally shot by Wood’s friend in a Kerrville convenience store. Wood was sitting in a truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, went into the store to steal a safe and then pulled the trigger on Keeran, who worked there as a clerk.
Even though Wood didn’t kill Keeran, he was convicted of murder and given the death penalty under the Texas statute known as the “law of parties,” which holds that those involved in a crime resulting in death are equally responsible, even if they weren’t directly involved in the actual killing.
With the 2017 legislative session underway, at least two Democrats and a Republican in the Texas House are working to stop Texas counties from sentencing people to death under the law of parties, keeping people like Jeff Wood out of the execution chamber.
“We’ve got to start somewhere when it comes to reforming the death penalty, and there’s no better place to start than the law of parties,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, about his bill, House Bill 316, which would make those convicted of capital murder under the law of parties ineligible for a death sentence.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who has become heavily involved in Wood’s case, said he plans to file his own bill as well as work with Canales.
Leach said he never really took a great interest in the law of parties until Wood’s case came up, and then he immersed himself in it, fighting against Wood’s execution and even planning a trip to meet him in prison next month.
“I am strongly in support of us continuing to have the death penalty, but only for the most heinous crimes and offenders that we know actually committed crimes,” said Leach.
There are two pieces to Texas’ law of parties. The first puts criminal responsibility on those who help commit a crime, even if they aren’t directly involved — think of the getaway driver in a robbery. The second states that all parties are responsible for one felony that stems from another if the second could have been “anticipated.” So, in Wood’s case, he was participating in a robbery that turned into a murder, and the jury determined he could have “anticipated” the murder based on the robbery.
“He may have suspected, he may have anticipated, but he didn’t know,” Leach said. “You can’t be executing people like that, you just can’t. We can keep them in prison for life, but to execute them is an entirely different conversation.”
Aside from the new interest, there is Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston. He has filed a bill similar to Canales’ legislation every session since 2009, along with one to abolish the death penalty. But Dutton’s bill is more limited.
House Bill 147 focuses only on the second section of the law of parties. It would make the death penalty ineligible for people like Wood, who was involved in a murder that stemmed from a robbery, even if he anticipated the robbery may turn to murder. But it wouldn’t touch on those who are convicted for helping the killer commit the murder.
Texas is one of six states that has executed people who did not actually commit the murder in which they were convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The center has confirmed five such executions in Texas, and five other states have each had one. Amanda Marzullo with the Texas Defender Service, a group of death penalty defense lawyers, said that difference highlights the disproportionality of the justice system.
“[The new bills] are important for maintaining the integrity of Texas’ death penalty,” she said.
“[Prosecutors] want to have as many tools available to them as possible in some of these heinous cases,” Edmonds said.
In a death penalty trial currently undergoing jury selection in Walker County, John Falk is charged with capital murder under the law of parties. According to the Huntsville Item, Falk escaped a Huntsville prison with another inmate in 2007, and the other inmate killed a guard during the escape.
Dutton’s previous attempts to reform the law of parties have all failed, with the bills never making it onto the House floor. But he and the other two lawmakers hope the recent publicity in Wood’s case will help their cause. In his efforts to stop Wood’s execution, Leach said he was able to gather signatures from more than 50 legislators from both sides of the political spectrum.
“I hope the Legislature’s smart. … Around here, it’s sometimes persistence that matters,” Dutton said.
Canales said he anticipates amendments and substitutions to his bill but that he thinks it could ultimately survive the conservative Legislature.
“Oftentimes we file bills, and the conversation begins,” he said. “More than anything I think it’s an important step to begin the conversation in regards to capital punishment with the law of parties.”
Even if a law is passed, Danny Wood, Jeff Wood’s father, has trouble finding solace in it. He advocates for reform of the law of parties, but his biggest concerns remain with his son.
“The bummer is, as much as I look forward to [new legislation], we also face the idea and realization that that does nothing against [already sentenced] cases,” he said, which would include his son.
Jeff Wood was outside in a pickup when his partner killed a Kerrville convenience store clerk in 1996, but he was sentenced to death under Texas’ felony murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties.
State Rep. Terry Canales has filed HB 316, a bill to prohibit death sentences in cases in which the defendant is convicted under the law of parties. Last August 19, Rep. Canales sent a letter to Governor Greg Abbott supporting clemency for Jeff Wood, who was sentenced to death under the law of parties. Before Gov. Abbott could act on the clemency request, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Wood a stay of execution. Wood remains under a death sentence pending further judicial action.
The authors argue that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tison v. Arizona (1987) should be overturned. Tison allows the death penalty for certain non-triggermen if the defendant was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with a reckless disregard for human life. According to the law review, the analysis in Tison has been overturned in other cases, “Tison leads a trilogy of cases, including Stanford v. Kentucky and Penry v. Lynaugh, that represent a sharp break from a tradition of careful scrutiny on proportionality that considers both objective and subjective criteria in determining whether a certain category of defendants is constitutionally eligible for a death sentence.” Both Stanford and Penry have been overturned, and the authors maintain that, “under the proportionality analysis articulated in Atkins v. Virginia, Roper v. Simmons, and Kennedy v. Louisiana, the contemporary ‘standards of decency’ require a further narrowing of death penalty eligibility for those who do not kill nor intend to kill.” The article concludes, “In 2009, the Court cemented the new proportionality paradigm in Kennedy, expressly basing its analysis on the framework of Roper, Atkins, Coker, and Enmund. In so doing, the Court abandoned Tison’s analytical framework as no longer authoritative. The time has come to overturn Tison and to bar the execution of felony-murder accomplices who neither kill nor intend to kill.”
Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston today filed HB 147, a bill to prohibit the death penalty for people convicted under the law of parties.
Jeff Wood received a stay of execution in August 2016 after many legislators expressed support by writing clemency letters to Gov. Greg Abbott. Wood received a stay of execution from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals pending further review.
State Representative Harold Dutton, who has sponsored a bill in the Legislatures to end the death penalty in law of parties cases, wrote a letter urging Governor Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency to Jeff Wood. His bill was signed by four other state representatives: Senfronia Thompson, Garnet Coleman, Ron Reynolds and Alma Allen. Thank you to each of them for helping to save Jeff Wood.
Today, August 24, 2016, was scheduled to be the day of Jeff Wood’s unjust execution in Texas. Many people were outraged that Texas sentenced him to death even though he did not kill anyone. His execution has been stayed, but he remains under a sentence of death. His case has been sent back to the trial court for further action. Right now, he remains on death row in the Polunsky Unit. Thank you to everyone who spoke out to stop his execution. Please sign the petition if you have not already done so.
We will continue to visit with members of the Texas Legislature to build support for passing a bill in 2017 to prohibit death sentences in law of parties cases. We hope you will join us on Lobby Day in the spring at the Texas Capitol.