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Should a Man Who Did Not Commit a Murder Be Executed for It Anyway?

Texas State Flag / CC-BY-2.0

Texas State Flag / CC-BY-2.0

In 1996, Jeff Wood sat in a truck while Danny Reneau went inside a Texaco station in Kerrville, Texas, and fatally shot his friend Kris Keeran during an armed robbery. Wood says he had no idea Reneau had a gun and thought the plan to rob the station had been called off. Wood is now scheduled to be executed on Aug. 24 because Texas’ “law of parties” allows a person to be charged with a crime even if he did not commit it.

The Intercept reports:

An extension of the theory of accomplice liability, the law holds that if two or more conspirators agree to commit one crime — say, a robbery — but instead, one of them commits another crime — say, murder — each party can be held responsible for the murder, regardless of individual intent, based on the notion that the conspirators should have anticipated that the crime committed would actually happen.

Texas is among five states that approve “actively” pursuing the death penalty for an accomplice who lacked intent to kill; the vast majority require intent as a prerequisite to seeking the death penalty against a party to a crime.

Put simply, Texas’s law is unjust, [Nick] Been [the 20-year-old nephew of Wood] told supporters outside the governor’s mansion, because it “punishes affiliations” and not actions. “How does it get more unfair than that?” he asked the crowd, tearing up as he spoke. “My uncle is a victim of the Texas system. He is sentenced to be executed for a crime he did not — did not — commit.”

After Reneau shot Keeran, he had Wood grab the video evidence and help steal the safe.

Wood, who has cognitive impairment, had no previous criminal history. According to savejeffwood.com, his trial raised major issues that should force a retrial. The judgment in his sentence was primarily based on testimony by a discredited psychiatrist, James Grigson, sometimes called “Dr. Death.”

According to savejeffwood.com:

In 1995, three years before he testified in Mr. Wood’s trial, Dr. Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for flagrant ethical violations involving this same conduct. …

The organizations found these kinds of hypotheticals “grossly inadequate to elucidate a competent medical, psychiatric differential diagnostic understanding adequate for diagnosing a mental illness according to current standards.” … Dr. Grigson was also faulted by the organizations for testifying that he could predict with certainty that a defendant would be criminally dangerous in the future. …

In 2004, a federal judge found that Dr. Grigson had falsely testified in that case by “exaggerat[ing] the degree of his certainty that [the defendant] would be dangerous in the future.” … The judge also found that Dr. [Grigson] “inflat[ed] the number of defendants he determined would not likely be dangerous in the future” as “a conscious attempt to mislead the jury as to his objectivity.” … A Texas judge has previously described Dr. Grigson’s testimony as “prejudicial beyond belief.” … As a report analyzing the behavior of death-sentenced prisoners showed, Dr. Grigson has been proven wrong time and time again. …

At Mr. Wood’s sentencing hearing, the jury also did not hear evidence that might have caused it to spare Mr. Wood’s life. Due to mental illness that should have rendered him incompetent to stand trial, Mr. Wood instructed his attorneys not to present any evidence on his behalf or cross-examine witnesses. … The jury therefore never heard that Mr. Wood had borderline intellectual functioning and emotional and psychological impairments which rendered him vulnerable to Reneau. … As a child, Mr. Wood suffered from several psychiatric disorders and was placed in special education. … A clinical neuropsychologist who tested Mr. Wood before trial found that he had significant cognitive impairments and had reading and spelling abilities ranging from the fourth to fifth grade levels. …

An earlier jury found Mr. Wood incompetent to stand trial based on clinical testimony about his delusional belief system. … He was placed in the Vernon State Hospital, but was deemed competent 15 days later without having received any medication or treatment.

For many who believe the punishment exceeds the crime, the hope is that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will stop Wood’s execution and prevent the Texas criminal justice system from putting to death a man who had never planned to help commit murder.

—Posted by Donald Kaufman

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