EVEN AS capital punishment becomes less frequent, killing remains punishable by death in 31 states. In Texas, so is not killing: If the state goes through with the execution of Jeffery Wood, slated for Aug. 24, a man will die for a murder he did not commit and is not accused of committing.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Wood made a plan with a friend to steal a safe from a store in Kerr County, Tex. While Daniel Reneau entered the store and shot the clerk, Mr. Wood sat outside in a truck. He was never armed. He may not even have known that Mr. Reneau, who was put to death in 2002, had a gun.
Texas is responsible for more than a third of U.S. executions since 1976. Though most of those executed were convicted murderers, a handful were not. A provision in the state’s penal code blurs the distinction between killer and accomplice, allowing for someone who did not pull the trigger — or order that the trigger be pulled — to get a murderer’s sentence. Seventeen states have similar laws, and five actively pursue the death penalty for people who did not kill and did not intend to kill.
Texas’s policy is as misguided as capital punishment itself is cruel and archaic. But even by Texas’s standards, Mr. Wood’s involvement appears to have been limited. He played no part in any underlying felonies, and he did not have any prior criminal charges. Mr. Wood’s lawyers say executing someone with his level of culpability would be unprecedented in the modern era.
Mr. Wood, who has an IQ of 80, was twice ruled incompetent in court: once to stand trial, and once — after a state hospital sent him back to court without assessing his ability to assist in his defense — to represent himself as he requested. In the end, the sentencing phase of his trial proceeded with no defense. If the court had inquired further into Mr. Wood’s mental state, perhaps the prosecution could not have called on psychiatrist James Grigson, nicknamed “Dr. Death,” without anyone to cross-examine him. Perhaps then, the cross-examiner would have uncovered that Mr. Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for his bogus method of predicting a defendant’s dangerousness.
Mr. Wood’s lawyers have asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) commute his sentence. The board has made that recommendation in two other non-triggerman cases in the past 10 years and is expected to come to its conclusion 48 hours before the scheduled execution. The board should move to let Mr. Wood live, and Mr. Abbott should defer to that judgment.
Ideally, states and the federal government would not be in the killing business in the first place. In this case, Mr. Wood wasn’t in that business himself.