Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle reports in this week’s issue on the case of Jeff Wood. From “Those Who Are About to Die“:
Wood did not fire the fatal shot and did not participate in the robbery that preceded the Jan. 2, 1996, murder. Nonetheless, Wood was sentenced to die, based on the state’s “law of parties,” also known as the “conspirator liability” statute. The law provides that if two or more people agree to commit one crime but in the process commit another, each person is guilty of the crime committed – if the crime was “one that should have been anticipated.” This is a more nebulous form of traditional accomplice liability (aiding and abetting) that requires the state to prove specific, individual culpability. The difference here is in intent and foresight: Accomplice liability requires intent; conspiracy requires only a finding that the crime was foreseeable.
In Wood’s case, the state argued that he had planned with Reneau to rob the Texaco and therefore was responsible for Keeran’s death. But it isn’t at all clear that Wood was planning to rob the store. Wood told police that he’d heard Reneau talking with someone else (the store manager, Been says) about a possible robbery – the place had taken in $17,000 over Christmas, and the pair speculated that a similarly hefty stash could be expected just after New Year’s Eve, since the bank holiday would mean the money would not yet have been deposited – but Wood also said he believed the talk was “bullshit in the breeze.” (Family members have said that Wood did initially talk about robbing the store, along with Reneau, the store manager, and Keeran, but insisted that Wood, Keeran, and the manager all dismissed the idea.)
Critics have argued that Texas’ use of the law of parties unconstitutionally broadens the field of death-eligible defendants; the death penalty, they argue, should be reserved for the most culpable and most heinous crimes. In fact, Texas is the only state that uses a conspiracy statute to make defendants eligible for the death penalty. “To pass constitutional scrutiny,” Wood’s attorney Scott Sullivan argued on appeal, “a sentencing statute must not only narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty, it must also ensure sentencing decisions are based upon an individual inquiry” of culpability. Texas’ law of parties fails to do that, he wrote. The state, however, argues that the law of parties is not implicated in a decision to impose death: “The Texas capital murder scheme does not allow an individual to be put to death merely for being a party because the law-of-parties cannot be applied in answering the special issues” that jurors must answer, argued then-Bexar Co. Assistant District Attorney Lucy Cavazos. A death sentence is assessed only if jurors find that a defendant would pose a continuing threat to society and that there is no mitigating evidence that might lessen the defendant’s culpability. Yet Cavazos’ argument evades the fact that without the law-of-parties, defendants like Wood wouldn’t be eligible for death in the first place. The courts have sided with the state.
Wood’s case is similar to that of Kenneth Foster, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood by a companion, based on the Bexar Co. district attorney’s use of the conspiracy statute. Foster was scheduled to die last year but was spared when Gov. Rick Perry accepted the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and commuted his sentence to life in prison. “I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster’s sentence,” he said. Perry did not directly implicate the law of parties in explaining his decision but did raise the issue of culpability, saying he was “concerned” that state law allowed Foster to be tried jointly with triggerman Maurecio Brown.
Jeff Wood’s family and friends are holding a rally to Save Jeff Wood this Saturday, Aug 2, in San Antonio in the plaza in front of the Alamo.