Terri Been, sister of Jeff Wood, testifying before Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on April 17, 2017 in support of law of parties reform bills.
Under the provisions of the bills, a death sentence could not be sought or imposed on a defendant whose liability for a capital felony offense was based solely on the capital felony occurring in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit another felony offense in which the defendant was a co-conspirator.
The death penalty was a hot topic at the Texas Capitol Monday night.
Testimony on five capital punishment bills was heard by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in a seven-hour-long meeting that lasted until close to midnight. The bills included two that would stop the practice of sentencing accomplices to death in certain cases and two which would abolish the death penalty altogether.
House Bills 147 and 316, by Democrats Harold Dutton and Terry Canales, respectively, would change how a person could be sentenced to death under Texas’ “law of parties,” which holds that those involved in a crime resulting in death are equally responsible even if they weren’t the actual killer.
“At the end of the day, the logic should be, ‘Did you intend to participate in that murder? Were you a part of it?’” Canales exclaimed while laying out his bill near the end of the long meeting. “Let’s cut the nonsense out.”
The most prominent case of a current Texas death row inmate sentenced under the law of parties is Jeff Wood. Wood was convicted in the 1996 murder of Kriss Keeran, who was fatally shot by Wood’s friend in a Kerrville convenience store while he sat outside in a truck. Last year, Wood’s case garnered national attention as his execution neared. Texas lawmakers from both parties spoke out against the execution, which was halted days before the scheduled date.
Republican Rep. Jeff Leach has been one of the most adamant supporters of reforming the law of parties. He has taken an interest in Wood’s case, going so far as to visiting him on death row in February.
“I promised Jeff that I and Chairman Dutton and Rep. Canales would do everything that we can this session to ensure that another case like Jeff Wood’s case would never happen again in the state of Texas,” Leach said at a news conference earlier Monday on the bills.
There are two ways to find someone guilty under Texas’ law of parties. The first puts responsibility on those who help commit or solicit a crime, even if they weren’t directly involved. The second states that all parties are responsible for one felony that stems from another if the second “should have been anticipated.” For Wood, the state argued he was willfully participating in a robbery and knew his accomplice would resort to killing if Keeran did not comply, so Wood should have anticipated the robbery would lead to a murder. Wood has maintained he didnt know his friend had a gun on him.
The reform bills focus mainly on the “anticipation” clause, removing the possibility of a death sentence if someone is found guilty under the second part of the law of parties and automatically granting them a sentence of life without parole. Currently, after being convicted, a jury still must agree the convict intended to kill or anticipated death to issue a death sentence.
Travis County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood was the lone testifier against the bills, with eight others testifying in support of the bills that were laid out close to 11 p.m. He said the law of parties has been a “useful tool” for prosecutors, adding that “there are a lot of monsters who never get their hands dirty.”
But Dutton argued that those people would still be punished, just not to death.
Chairman Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said Wood’s testimony resonated with him as he has long struggled to “strike a balance” with the law of parties and the death penalty. In 2009, a similar bill filed in the House made it to the Senate, but died there. Terri Been, Jeff Wood’s sister, said she has been lobbying against the law of parties for 20 years and pleaded through tears for the Legislature to move it forward this year.
“My cries have fallen on mostly deaf ears. I’m begging you to be leaders and to lead your constituents in the right direction,” she said before wiping her eyes.
It is not common for a jury to sentence someone to death under the law of parties, but it happens. In 2007, prison inmates Jerry Martin and John Ray Falk, Jr., attempted escape. In the escape, Martin hit and killed prison guard Susan Canfield with a van. This March, Falk was sentenced to death as a party to the murder.
And Texas has executed at least five people under the statute, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Only five other states have executed anyone under similar laws.
Aside from the law of parties, two identical bills to get rid of the death penalty in Texas completely were also heard Monday evening. Dutton and Rep. Jessica Farrar filed House Bills 64 and 1537.
Both lawmakers have repeatedly filed abolition bills in past legislative sessions, and they acknowledged their main goal was to keep up a discussion on the death penalty. In a Republican-led legislature, it is almost certain that the bills will not pass. Dutton clarified to committee members he was asking for them not to vote against the death penalty but “to vote to let the House have a debate on this.”
“This bill might not pass this time, but if it doesn’t pass this time, we’ll be right back here next time, fighting the same fight,” Dutton said earlier Monday at a press conference on his two death penalty bills.
Fourteen people testified in support of abolishing the death penalty for reasons ranging from arbitrary sentencing to the cost of appeals. One woman tearfully spoke of her death-sentenced husband. No one spoke out against the bill.
The remaining bill focused on the death penalty was one by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, a democrat from San Antonio. House Bill 3411 aims to lessen requirements to become the lead defense attorney in capital murder cases to allow for more lawyers to handle the backlog of death penalty cases.
Texas Defender Services Executive Director Amanda Marzullo argued against the lesser requirements, saying she believed it would cause more trouble in the appeals process and that there were other ways to ease the backlog such as creating a public defender office.
“We’ve got to build the bench, and we’ve got to move these cases,” Gervin-Hawkins responded. “These people need their day in court.”
All of the bills were left pending before the committee.
The 2017 Statewide Texas Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty will be held Monday, April 17, 2017, when the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence will hold a hearing on the bills to abolish the death penalty and the bill to ban executions in law of parties cases. Members of Jeff Wood’s family and Kenneth Foster, Jr’s family will testify at the committee hearing in the afternoon and speak at the press conference at noon in the Speaker’s Committee Room 2W.6.
COMMITTEE: Criminal Jurisprudence
TIME & DATE: 2:00 PM or upon final adjourn./recess
Monday, April 17, 2017
Schedule of the 2017 Statewide Texas Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty, April 17, Monday.
9 AM – 10 AM Check-in and meet for directions and lobbying tips. Capitol cafeteria, room E1.002. They serve breakfast till 10:30.
10:00 – Noon Visit legislative offices to lobby legislators to support abolishing the death penalty and banning death sentences in law of parties cases.
Noon Press Conference in the Speaker’s Committee Room (2W.6). Special guests include State Rep. Harold Dutton and State Rep. Jeff Leach, plus Terri Been and other family members of Jeff Wood, who remains on death row convicted under the law of parties, and Lawrence Foster, grandfather of Kenneth Foster, Jr, who won clemency in 1007 after being sentenced under the law of parties.
1 PM Lunch at your own expense in the Capitol cafeteria.
2 PM Hearing on abolition and law of parties bills in Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence E2.014. You can testify verbally, submit written testimony, or just sign in to support the bills without testifying.
People from across Texas will come to the Capitol in Austin on Lobby Day to advocate for three bills to abolish the death penalty in Texas (HB 64 filed by State Rep Harold Dutton and HB 1537 by State Rep Jessica Farrar, as well SB 597 filed by Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr).
We will also lobby for bills that would prohibit death sentences for people convicted under the Law of Parties even though they did not kill anyone (HB 147 by Rep Dutton and HB 316 by Rep Terry Canales). Last summer, Jeff Wood’s scheduled execution under the law of parties was stayed shortly before his scheduled execution. Many legislators spoke out to support clemency for Jeff Wood, because he did not kill anyone. Now, is our chance to pass a bill to prohibit executions under the law of parties.
In the past, our Lobby Day has resulted in several legislators signing on to support the bills we lobbied for. In 2015 we visited the office of Senator Eddie Lucio Jr and asked him to file a bill to abolish the death penalty. He filed his abolition bill two weeks later.
As we do every session, we are calling this the “Day of Innocence” at the capitol. Special guests will include people who were sentenced to death and later exonerated. We will announce who will come soon.
We will visit legislative offices and ask legislators to support abolishing the death penalty. We will hold a press conference at noon. We will also attend the committee hearing starting at 2 PM and testify in support of the bills. Anyone can sign up to testify or you can just sign in as a supporter of the bills without testifying. You can submit written testimony or deliver your testimony verbally in front of the committee members.
This will be a day we will always remember, a day when we stand side by side with innocent people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death and side-by-side with family members of people sentenced to death under the law of parties.
Please be sure to dress professionally.
The Statewide Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty has been organized since 2003 by several organizations working together: Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Kids Against the Death Penalty, and Students Against the Death Penalty.
Organizations that would like to participate or co-sponsor the lobby day can contact any of the above mentioned organizations.
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.