By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
The state of Texas is scheduled to execute Jeffery Lee Wood by lethal injection tonight, even though he did not actually kill anyone. Wood was sitting in a truck outside a convenience store when an accomplice shot and killed a cashier in a botched robbery 12 years ago.
If the execution moves forward, Wood, 35, will become only the eighth person to be put to death as an accomplice since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. More than 1,100 people have been executed during this period. The executed accomplices do not include those who were put to death for hiring someone to commit murder.
"It is very, very rare," said David Fathi, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch. "This is a case that illustrates everything that is wrong with the death penalty in Texas."
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recently voted 7 to 0 against clemency. Gov. Rick Perry (R) can issue a reprieve, but experts said that is unlikely in the face of such a strong decision by the board.
Wood has lost challenges to his conviction in state and federal courts, and his lawyers recently filed a motion for a stay of execution to pursue an "incompetency to be executed" claim. A spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general said the office would not comment on the Wood case.
"It certainly doesn't look good," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "The governor can't grant clemency without a recommendation for it. We've seen cases get stayed literally at the eleventh hour, so it's not over."
Since the case began, lawyers and family members have argued that Wood was mentally unfit for trial. They say he has a severe learning disability, is easily coaxed into doing what he is told and is delusional. Wood signed a statement confessing to the crime.
At first, a judge agreed with the lawyers, sending Wood to a hospital for evaluation. A jury later determined that he could stand trial.
Wood's crime fell under the Texas "law of parties" statute that allows an accomplice to be charged with a capital crime if his actions contributed to a murder.
On Jan. 2, 1996, he and a roommate, Daniel Reneau, drove to a gas station and convenience store in Kerrville, Tex. Court records show that Wood and Reneau had talked with Kriss Keeran, a cashier, and another employee about staging a fake robbery.
As Wood waited outside, Reneau entered the store and the plan unraveled. Reneau shot Keeran in the forehead with a .22-caliber handgun. Wood and Reneau fled with a safe.
The prosecutor in the case called the crime a cold and premeditated homicide in the trial that convicted both men. Reneau was executed in 2003.
Death penalty opponents argue, however, that Texas has applied its law-of-parties statute too loosely.
A 1982 decision by the Supreme Court appears to support such a view. The court decided 5 to 4 in Enmund v. Florida that imposing the death penalty on a defendant when a murder was committed by others was a violation of the Eighth Amendment if the defendant "does not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing take place, or lethal force will be employed."
But a second 5 to 4 decision by the court appears to support Texas. In Tison v. Arizona, a case in which family members broke their father out of prison and then killed a family of four that they flagged down to help repair their getaway car, the court said that the death penalty could apply if it could be shown that the defendant was a "major participant" in the felony and acted with "reckless indifference to human life."
"That's why I think this issue may come back to the Supreme Court," Dieter said. "This is an area that needs some clarification."
Texas, which has put more people to death since 1976 than any other state, executed three men as accomplices between 1985 and 1993.
Steven Hatch of Oklahoma was the last person executed as an accomplice for his role in the torture and shooting of a family and the slaying of the parents. Hatch died in 1996, but his accomplice, Glen Ake, who shot the family members, is serving a life sentence after cooperating with police and prosecutors.
In July, Dale Leo Bishop was put to death in Mississippi for the 1998 kidnapping and beating of Marcus Gentry. Bishop held the 22-year-old victim while another man, Jessie Johnson, bludgeoned him with a carpenter's hammer.
Dieter said the Bishop case was not included on his organization's list of accomplice executions "because we made a decision that this wasn't the same kind of thing."
"He held the man while another man killed him," Dieter said.