Friday, August 12, 2016
James Lee Wood is scheduled to be executed on August 26 of this year. He has not killed anybody, and nobody disputes that fact. Rather, as set out below, Wood was convicted under a controversial Texas law that allows for trying someone who did not kill anybody with capital murder 1) if he was involved in a plan to commit a crime; and, 2) if he should have realized that the crime would in fact be carried out. The Washington Post's Kristine Guerra explains:
Wood was convicted and sentenced to death under what’s called the law of parties, which has been in effect in Texas since the 1970s. It states that a person who “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit an offense” is also criminally liable for that offense.
Under the law, prosecutors are not required to prove that a defendant had any part in committing a crime, or even intended to commit it. Jurors only need to find that there was a plan to commit a crime and that the defendant should have anticipated that the crime would occur...
Executions of people who did not directly kill the victim are extremely rare: The Death Penalty Information Center lists just 10 such instances that didn’t involve contract killings. Half were in Texas under the law of parties.
In recent years, there have been efforts to reform Texas law so that someone who didn’t kill won’t be executed. So far, those efforts have failed.
Last year, state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat from Houston, introduced a bill that would ban the death penalty in law of parties cases. The bill, however, did not get a vote on the floor.
Tim Cole, a former Texas prosecutor and defense attorney, said the law of parties erases the distinction between an accomplice and someone who pulled the trigger.
“The legal argument is that, obviously, if you look at moral culpability in terms of who’s most culpable, it’s the person who actually committed the crime,” Cole told The Post. “In most circumstances, most people would think the other person who pulls the trigger should be subject to a higher level of punishment than the other person.”
Cole echoes what the U.S. Supreme Court has said in the past.
In a 1982 case involving the robbery and murder of an elderly Florida couple, the high court threw out the death-penalty sentence of a man who was in a getaway car when the killings happened. Someone who participated in the robbery shouldn’t be treated the same as the person who committed the killings, the court said.
But there are exceptions, Cole said. One example is a murder-for-hire case in which the triggerman was following orders from someone else.
The 1996 killing of convenience store clerk in Kerrville, Texas for which Wood was convicted and sentence to death was not a murder-for-hire scheme. Rather, according to testimony by his then-girlfriend, Wood tried to prevent any violence from happening.
To be clear, Wood is not arguing his innocence. He did agree to help Daniel Reneau rob a convenience store safe. He was an accomplice to the crime; he drove Reneau to the crime scene. However, before committing the crime, Wood apparently pleaded with Reneau to leave the .22-caliber handgun Reneau had with him behind. Without Wood's knowledge, Reneau brought it anyway. He later shot the clerk while Wood waited for him in the car.
In a writ of habeus corpus recently filed by his attorneys with the Texas Supreme Court, Wood now claims that he could not have anticipated Reneau's true intentions. According to Guerra's report, Wood "is borderline mentally disabled with an IQ of 80." Coupled with his emotional immaturity, he was susceptible to manipulation. Put simply, when Reneau relinquished to his request not to bring the gun, Wood did not have the intellectual capacity to understand that Reneau might be lying to him.
Wood also claims that the psychiatrist for the prosecution at his trial--who, it should be added, never met with Wood--gave false and misleading statements about the likelihood that Wood would commit future violent acts. And, this psychiatrist reportedly has a reputation. Because of his penchant for testifying for the prosecution in death penalty cases, this particular psychiatrist carries the nickname "Dr. Death." Also, as Guerra notes:
In 1995, three years before Wood’s trial, [James] Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and its Texas branch at that time, the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians, for predicting a defendant’s potential threat to society based solely on a hypothetical. The expulsions followed an investigation by the Texas association’s ethics committee, which cited Grigson’s “willfully narrow rendition of psychiatric knowledge.”
In a profile published after Grigson’s death in 2004, the Houston Chronicle cited his unusual willingness to testify against capital murder defendants. A former prosecutor who used Grigson in several trials told the newspaper that he was an “outstanding communicator who really connected with a jury.”
But the psychiatric association saw Grigson as a threat to the profession.
Reneau was executed in 2002. Wood now argues that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, and that someone who has not actually killed anybody is not that--he's different from Reneau. However, unless the Texas Supreme Court intervenes, he will meet the same fate.