March 21, 2009
A Texas death row inmate who came within hours of execution last summer has lost an appeal in a federal appeals court where his lawyers argued he's too mentally ill to be put to death for taking part in a fatal robbery more than a decade ago in the Texas Hill Country.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal from Jeffery Wood, 35, condemned for the January 1996 slaying Kriss Keeran at a convenience store in Kerrville.
Wood was convicted of capital murder under the Texas law of parties, which makes the participant in a capital murder equally culpable of the crime. Evidence showed Wood waited in a car outside the convenience store while his roommate, Daniel Reneau, fatally shot 31-year-old Keeran once in the face with a .22-caliber pistol.
Both men then robbed the store, taking more than $11,000 in cash and checks.
Reneau was executed in 2002.
Wood was scheduled to die last August but a federal judge delayed the lethal injection so Wood could be tested to determine whether he's mentally competent to understand why he should be executed. He does not have an execution date now.
In the appeal to the New Orleans-based appeals court, Wood's lawyers contended they needed a second expert, a neuropsychologist, to examine Wood after he already had been examined by a forensic psychologist.
"Mr. Wood lacks a rational understanding of his death sentence and of the reasons for his imminent execution," attorney Scott Sullivan said in his motion filed earlier this week.
They also wanted the court to approve hiring of an additional investigator and keep the expenses and results confidential.
Prosecutors argued Wood already had an expert "of his own choosing," hasn't shown why he needs a second and also has shown "only generic reasons for confidentiality."
A federal district judge ruled earlier that relevant information about Wood's mental condition shouldn't be concealed.
"At this stage of the proceedings, there is no need for 'trial by ambush' or 'gamesmanship,'" the Texas Attorney General's Office argued in its opposition to Wood's appeal.
The appeals court, in its ruling Friday, agreed, saying Wood's lawyers gave no reasons for a need for confidentiality. They also pointed out the lower court judge didn't bar them from asking again for the second psychological expert, but that the public interest wouldn't be served by stopping everything in the courts regarding Wood's case.
Last summer, Sullivan said in a motion he met with Wood and that the prisoner told him he believed his trial judge was corrupt but would accept a $100,000 bribe and then deport him to Norway where he could live with his wife. Sullivan said Wood also believed the government will pay him $50,000 a year once he's released and that he's willing to give that money to the judge.
The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of prisoners determined to be mentally disabled, but that protection has not extended to those with mental illness.
Wood was found by a jury to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. After a brief stint at a state hospital, a second jury found him competent.
At his capital murder trial, he tried to fire his lawyers before the penalty phase. The trial judge denied the request but Wood's lawyers followed their client's wishes, called no witnesses and declined to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
Evidence showed Wood and Reneau planned the robbery for a couple of weeks and unsuccessfully tried recruiting the victim, Keeran, whom they knew, and another employee to stage a phony robbery at the Texaco gas station.
Wood's lawyers said his mental illness allowed him to be easily manipulated by Reneau.
Texas Moratorium Network (TMN) is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of mobilizing statewide support for a moratorium on executions in Texas. Significant death penalty reform in Texas, including a moratorium on executions, is a viable goal if the public is educated on the death penalty system and is encouraged to contact their elected representatives to urge passage of moratorium legislation.
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