The Dallas Morning News has an editorial today on the Law of Parties and the death penalty. Tomorrow, we will be down at the capitol for the Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty talking to legislators about the Law of Parties.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst criminals – those who commit the most heinous murders.
But in Texas, we sometimes execute accomplices, people who never pulled the trigger and who might have been only peripherally involved in a crime. The law of parties permits the court to hold someone criminally responsible for the acts of another.
Incredibly, an accomplice can be put to death for the triggerman’s crime. That accomplice might not even get his own trial, as Texas allows joint trials in capital cases.
But proposed legislation would change that.
Several lawmakers are pushing for needed reforms that would guarantee a defendant’s right to his own trial in a death penalty case. Other bills would rule out sentencing an accomplice to death using the law of parties.
This common-sense legislation, which got a hearing Thursday in a House subcommittee, would ensure that defendants in capital cases have their own day in court and are not punished for another’s actions. Even death penalty proponents should welcome these safeguards.
Gov. Rick Perry, who has shown little hesitancy about the death penalty, expressed concerns about simultaneous trials in 2007 when he blocked Kenneth Foster’s execution and reduced his sentence to life in prison. The governor urged the Legislature to look at the issue.
Foster, who drove the getaway car during a robbery spree that turned deadly, faced a legal double whammy. He was tried with the shooter and was sentenced to die under the law of parties. Even though Foster was sitting yards away in his grandfather’s rental car when his partner in crime fired the gun, the jury determined that Foster intended to kill or “should have anticipated” a murder.
Adopting this legislation would send the message that Texas no longer plans to impose the ultimate punishment for crimes that someone else committed. These bills, as well as one filed by Rep. Harold Dutton, would take aim at let’s-make-a-deal gamesmanship that pits defendants in capital cases against one another.