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.