Death Penalty

Texas Court Halts Execution of Man Who Did Not Kill Anyone

Jeff Wood was scheduled to be executed Wednesday.

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Ken Piorkowski / Flickr

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Friday to halt the scheduled execution of a man who did not kill anyone.

Jeff Wood was set to be executed by lethal injection this Wednesday for taking part in a 1996 convenience store robbery that resulted in the death of Kriss Keeran, the store's clerk.

Yet Wood was not the man who shot Keeran; he was outside the store when his friend, Danny Reneau, pulled the trigger after the clerk refused to give Reneau access to the safe. When Wood went inside the store afterward, Reneau threatened him unless he helped remove both the safe and the security tape. Lawyers from both sides acknowledge that Wood didn't commit the murder, yet he and Reneau were both sentenced to death.

Wood's conviction is the result of Texas' law of parties, which states that if a person encourages or aids someone else in committing a crime that results in capital murder, both are eligible for the death penalty. Reneau was executed in 2002, and Wood was supposed to have a similar fate.

But that plan was halted Friday when judges ruled 7–2 to stop the execution. The court said it is asking a lower trial court to review the sentence as well as claims that evidence was obtained improperly and was "based on false testimony and false scientific claims."

Wood's lawyer, Jared Tyler, said there were serious issues with statements made by the late Dr. James Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist who testified against hundreds of capital murder defendants, earning him the nickname "Dr. Death." He was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Psychiatric Physicians for ethical violations. The issue: He diagnosed defendants without first examining them.

According to The Washington Post, "Grigson didn't personally examine Wood. But during the sentencing phase of the trial, the forensic psychiatrist told jurors that Wood would 'most certainly' commit violent crimes in the future, according to court records."

"Three former jurors have said they feel the government's presentation to them of a discredited psychiatrist who predicted with certainty," Tyler said in a statement Friday, "and without evaluating Mr. Wood, that Mr. Wood would be criminally violent in the future was unfair."

Additionally, there are concerns over whether Wood's execution would be constitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in Enmund v. Florida that the death penalty is not a valid punishment for those who did not kill or have the intent to kill anyone.

Questions have also been raised regarding Wood's mental health. His lawyers have said he has borderline intellectual functioning, and his stepmother has previously described him as an "8-year-old in a man's body." The Supreme Court has ruled that people with severe mental disabilities cannot be executed, though states are left to define for themselves exactly what that means. This unclarity has raised ethical questions in the past, including in 2015 when Missouri executed a man who was missing part of his brain.

Wood was previously scheduled to be executed in August 2008, but a federal district court issued a stay so he could be tested on whether or not he understood why he was on death row. Tests showed he was competent, and the parole board and then–Gov. Rick Perry refused to commute his sentence.

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  1. Holding people accountable for the actions of other people who killed someone without your encouragement, or it this case, not even being in the same place as the actual killer — I have serious problems with this legal theory.

    1. Wood’s conviction is the result of Texas’ law of parties, which states that if a person encourages or aids someone else in committing a crime that results in capital murder

      The law apparently agrees with you. The question is whether this situation fits the law.

      1. The judicial system is certainly taking its sweet time pondering that question.

      2. This case is about an aggressive interpretation of “aids someone” — as in, you could drive someone to a liquor store so they can buy a pack of smokes, and unknown to you, they are armed and intending to rob the store, and even though you’re in a car innocently waiting for your friend, next thing you know, you’re convicted of capital murder despite no mens rea on your part.

        This is not considered an unusual interpretation — this is what resulted in an actual conviction by a jury.

        1. Except that the driver in this case drove the murderer to commit an armed robbery, with the foreseeable risk of death.

          1. That’s the difference. Not knowing a crime was to be committed is a valid defense against A Felony Murder charge.

            Driving someone to the place they intend to commit a crime and then – even without you knowing it would happen (or even knowing that a murder had taken place) – *is* Felony Murder.

            However, IMO, its definitely something that should have been considered as a mitigating circumstance in sentencing if not in charging.

            1. Though I think I see why – Texas doesn’t seem to have a separate FM charge? So it gets turned into an actual straight up murder charge.

    2. You must be some kind of bleeding heart pussy.

      1. I live in Texas and theoretically could wind up convicted under this law if some “friend” of mine does something really stupid, so if opposing expansive laws like this makes one a “bleeding heart pussy”, then count me in.

        The police state here can be mighty aggravating to someone with libertarian sensibilities.

    3. Maybe he shouldn’t’ve messed with Texas.

    4. there needs to be degrees of assistance built into the law. It’s one thing to sit in the getaway car while a robbery goes bad. It’s another thing to hold a guy down while your buddy carves his heart out.

      1. There is. The former gets you a Felony Murder charge, the latter gets you accessory to if not an actual murder charge.

        However as a lesser crime, you’d think the maximum penalty for FM would be less than for accessory to or murder itself . . .

    5. Under Texas’s law of parties, he would be liable if “acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, he solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense”. It’s clearly intended to go after people who are knowingly part of the conspiracy to commit the underlying crime (the getaway car driver, etc.).

      But it is arguable that Woods even had the requisite intent here: he was threatened by the actual killer into providing aid. Woods seemed to, at most, be part of the conspiracy to commit the robbery that led to the murder by another in the conspiracy. The killer gets hit with felony-murder, which makes sense; but attaching felony-murder to Woods just because he was part of the robbery conspiracy seems far-stretched.

      1. But it is arguable that Woods even had the requisite intent here: he was threatened by the actual killer into providing aid.

        Duress is a defense.

        A lot of this comes down to credibility, though, would be my guess. Just how credible where Woods’ statements that he didn’t know or was coerced?

        1. A lot of this comes down to credibility, though, would be my guess. Just how credible where Woods’ statements that he didn’t know or was coerced?

          I would think that would come down to what the security camera footage showed. If it showed the two men clearly arguing and then the other guy point the gun at Wood and clearly threaten him, I would like the think the jury wasn’t filled with dumb-asses who would see that and say “fry him anyway.” So I’m guessing it was difficult to establish that he was clearly under duress.

          Still though, it seems like a law that was definitely misapplied in this case. I wouldn’t think it could be shown, based on what’s known here, that Wood knew the plan was to shoot the clerk all along, which sounds like reasonable doubt to me as far as the murder 1 charge goes.

          1. that Wood knew didn’t know the plan was to shoot the clerk all along

            Fucked that up the 1st time.

        2. Duress is defense for the acts he committed *under duress*. He gets the felony Murder charge because he willingly aided in the underlying offense – armed robbery.

          Removing the tape, the safe, even the driving away afterwards – those can be defended against as act under duress. Not driving there, not waiting while the robbery happened.

          I don’t necessarily agree with the logic behind FM – certainly not with having a death penalty attached to it – but what this guy did seems to fall squarely into the definition. He aided in the commission of a felony that resulted in someone’s murder.

  2. Shameful. I’m not categorically anti-death penalty in every case, but this is why I can’t abide the state administering the death penalty. There is too much abuse, and this abuse occurs at too many levels, for it to be an effectively applied punishment rather than an almost arbitrary sentence mixed in the arcana of current law.

    1. That is exactly where I am at. I am not against the death penalty for any moral reasons. I simply am against it because I don’t think our justice system can apply it fairly.

      1. Yep. Prosecutors tend to be the lowest scum of the earth. They care more about convictions and maximizing penalties than justice. So outcomes like this are an inevitable consequence of the incentives of those who seek the job along with the immunity they enjoy.

      2. I’m against the death penalty because I regard any government as the moral equivalent of the mafia, and so it is unlikely for such an organization to apply justice, much less do so fairly.

        1. I’m against it because government is (at best) the collective action of its citizens. You or I don’t have the authority to kill somebody in retribution, so the government shouldn’t either.

          1. Well, sure, except that the nature of government is invariably to do things that you and I don’t have the authority or moral right to do as individuals.

            You and I don’t have the right to rob others, but governments do it all the thing, prettying it up by calling it taxation.

            Same with the death penalty.

            And everything else the government does. Everything they do is coercive, and generally considered horribly wrong if individuals do it.

            1. Which is why the best argument against the death penalty is that it serves no useful purpose in the interest of justice.

              1. The best argument against the death penalty is the same argument that libertarians have against most of what government does. Government is people with incentives. They aren’t angels. So power will always be abused. Simple because the kind of people who seek it as a general rule shouldn’t have it.

                1. Yet stupid because it implies that people will behave like angels to each other in the absence of government.

          2. We don’t have the authority to lock people up for years in retribution either.

            But that kind of ethics sort of has to presume that there is a government with a monopoly on that kind of force. Ethics in anarchy might work out a bit differently.

    2. Pretty much.

      You give to much power to scum like Grigson and ambitious human beings pretending to uphold justice.

      1. too

    3. I used to be more supportive of the death penalty, but too many stories like this have soured me on it considerably. At the very least, I think there should be some burden of proof even higher than “reasonable doubt” before the death penalty can be on the table. Something like 100% certainty, which could only really be obtained if a murderer was caught on camera.

  3. Wood’s conviction is the result of Texas’ law of parties, which states that if a person encourages or aids someone else in committing a crime that results in capital murder, both are eligible for the death penalty. Reneau was executed in 2002, and Wood was supposed to have a similar fate.

    This doesn’t go far enough. We need some sort of “blood guilt” option, whereby the entire family of the killer can be wiped out. The threat of state sanctioned revenge murder just needs to be tweaked a bit to become totally effective at preventing crime.

    1. Conservative soccer moms and David French approve!

  4. I think I seen him pledgin allegiance to ISIS!

    1. Um, no. That was your mom.

      1. Watch out! He’ll copy and paste that right back at you!

        1. Um, no. That was your mom.

  5. “Yet Wood was not the man who shot Keeran; he was outside the store when his friend, Danny Reneau, pulled the trigger after the clerk refused to give Reneau access to the safe. When Wood went inside the store afterward, Reneau threatened him unless he helped remove both the safe and the security tape.”

    If the facts are as presented in that statement, I probably wouldn’t have convicted him if I were sitting on the jury. Did Reneau threaten to shoo Wood after he’d shot and killed the clerk?

    Self-defense isn’t murder because in cases of self-defense, you didn’t really have a choice. How can you be held accountable for a choice you made when you didn’t really have a choice?

    After the robber threatened to shoot Wood if he didn’t help, if Wood had shot the robber and killed him, a jury might have said it was self-defense. But because instead of shooting and killing the robber, he just helped him remove the safe and the security tape, that makes him guilty of something?

    A jury’s decision is like a box of chocolates, and I think this one got it wrong.

    1. Self-defense isn’t murder because in cases of self-defense, you didn’t really have a choice. How can you be held accountable for a choice you made when you didn’t really have a choice?

      Of course you have a choice in a self-defense case. You could have chosen no.

      But we don’t expect you (at least most of don’t) expect you to choose to allow someone to kill you and we won’t penalize you for defending yourself.

      But you have a choice.

      1. If death is the alternative, that isn’t really a choice.

        We don’t prosecute cashiers for handing over money that doesn’t belong to them when confronted by an armed robber–because the choice between handing over the money and dying isn’t really a choice. At least, it isn’t a choice that a jury should ever hold anyone responsible for making–because it’s so completely compromised.

        We don’t prosecute children because they don’t really understand the consequences of their choices the same way. We prosecute adults for statutory “rape” and molestation because even if children say they consent, their ability to understand long term consequences and make choices for themselves is inhibited by their youth.

        Taking advantage of someone with down syndrome has the same problem–consent is problematic when people’s ability to make choices is inhibited.

        Even in cases of negligence, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that someone’s safety was disregarded likely requires evidence to show the jury that someone’s safety was disregarded willfully.

        This is an important part of what we’re talking about when we talk about mens rea, and if this guy had good reason to think that if he didn’t comply, he would be killed, then he should not have been found guilty for what he did–because he didn’t really have a choice.

        P.S. We don’t hold people responsible for the contract they sign due to fraud because they didn’t really choose to agree to the terms. They didn’t really have a choice.

  6. I don’t know what the state of the law is today, but I’d say that if Jones has the intent to help Green commit a violent felony, and in the course of that felony Green murders someone, then Jones should also be considered a murderer.

    Forseeable consequences are not unintended, and a forseeable consequence of a violent felony is someone gets killed.

    I would call this a “depraved heart murder.”

    (whether murderers should get the death penalty is another question)

    1. I’ve got all kinds of problems with your reasoning here, including saying it is a foreseeable that this felony would turn violent, or that someone whose “lawyers have said he has borderline intellectual functioning” can be capable of forseeing these consequences.

      1. I’m not trying to apply these principles to *this* case – I’m using the case as a segue to suggest my idea.

        1. The problem is that any narrow definition of culpability you and I might advance is gonna be interpreted expansively by the state.

          If you say, “Let’s go rob a liquor store together, and if they resist, I’ll kill them” and I agree to that, then sure. I’ve given my consent to commit violence. I’m culpable for that entirely foreseeable outcome.

          The more expansive notion you advance does away with the notion of consent or mens rea.

          1. The more expansive notion you advance does away with the notion of consent

            Well, Eddie IS Catholic…

            1. You may be interested to know that in Western history, the secular legal system borrowed some key things from the Church, like for example the obsessive focus on intent.

              I’m thinking of a situation where Jones agrees to help Green rob a liquor store, Green says “I’ll brandish this gun, but it’s not loaded, I just want to scare the guy,” then during the robbery Green says – “surprise, it’s loaded!” and shoots the clerk dead.

              1. (I deliberately made the case difficult for my side – now we can discuss whether it should be murder if you really didn’t know that your confederate had bullets in his gun)

      2. I think hte foreseeablility of somebody getting killed during an armed robbery is sufficient, myself.

        The questions are, when did Woods know this was an armed robbery, and was he coerced? IF he wasn’t coerced and knew all along, then I think the felony murder rule applies (and should apply; I’m comfortable saying that everyone in a conspiracy is responsible, not just the triggerman) .

        1. i agree. If you take a gun into a place for the purpose of robbing them, it is foreseeable someone might get killed. That of course assumes the gun is loaded and operable.

    2. Again, let’s not forget that Jones was threatened with a gun if he didn’t help, apparently after the guy that threatened him had just killed somebody.

      You’re only responsible for what you do if if you had a choice.

      You can even kill people in self-defense if you didn’t really have a choice.

      Why should you be held responsible for what someone who just killed somebody in front of you orders you to do at gunpoint?

      It isn’t even a question for me of whether he should be executed for moving a safe and grabbing a camera. It’s a question of how you can be held responsible for a crime when you were forced to be an accessory at gunpoint?

      This is like charging a carjacking victim as an accessory after the fact for surrendering his car.

    3. “depraved heart murder.”

      That was not Nick Cave’s best album.

      1. I’m not confusing felony murder with depraved heart murder, I’m just using an analogy.

        1. So you’re saying Felony Murder was Nick Cave’s best album? That’s crazy talk. Willful, Wanton, and Reckless was much better.

    4. Foreseeability has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

      What if your co-conspirator has a gun but tells you “it’s just for show, it’s not loaded” but that turns out to be a lie and somebody ends up dead? Are you responsible for your co-conspirator’s lies because it was otherwise reasonably “foreseeable” that he would load his gun? A good prosecutor could argue that your subjective belief the co-conspirator was telling the truth seem depraved.

      1. That’s the situation I posited above – I chose the weakest part of my case just for the challenge.

        I’d say that once we’ve established that a person meant to rob someone with the threat of violence, he was accepting a situation where death is a risk.

    5. I would call this a “depraved heart murder.”

      I wouldn’t. There’s a world of difference between doing something where you simply don’t care if someone else is killed and going in with the genuine expectation (no matter optimistic) that you can do it without someone being killed. Certainly where you don’t expect your comrade to go all Mr White out of the blue.

      You can ding someone for being irrationally optimistic, you can hit them for ignoring the warning signs that they partner is kind of unhinged – but that doesn’t make a ‘depraved heart’.

  7. I am going to be a contrarian here. The problem with the way we administer the death penalty in this country is that we administer it too often based on how much the jury hates the defendant instead of concrete criteria that if enforced would serve to deter other criminals from committing crimes. The felony murder rule is one of the few times that a consistently administered deters murder and saves lives.

    You are not deterring some sicko who is out kidnapping and murdering children. You can deter a thief. If thieves know that killing a witness or uncooperative victim will turn a long prison sentence into a death penalty, they are more likely to think twice before murdering someone during the commission of a crime. This is especially important when you consider the prevalence of three strikes laws and long prison sentences in general in this country. Without the threat of the death penalty, an armed robber in a place like Texas, where committing a felony with a gun is likely to get you 20 or more years in prison, has little to lose by murdering his victims and much to gain by ensuring there are no witnesses.

    For this reason, I have zero sympathy for this guy. If you willingly participate in an armed robbery and someone dies, too bad. You just as responsible for that death as the guy who pulled the trigger.

    1. I am going to be a contrarian here.

      Well that’s a fucking shock.

      You can deter a thief.

      So we use the threat of the death penalty to deter thieves. Saudi Ar… I mean USA!!

      There is no evidence that harsh sentences, including the death penalty, do anything to deter crime beyond what civilized penalties would do. Your argument rests on a deterrence effect that is not known to exist.

      You just as responsible for that death as the guy who pulled the trigger.

      Not in any conception of the ethics of crime and punishment that I’m aware of, except that of the state of Texas.

      1. “So we use the threat of the death penalty to deter thieves. Saudi Ar… I mean USA!!”

        If you actually read his post, he said we can deter thieves from resorting to murder to accomplish their thefts.

      2. Tony, you can deter a thief from murdering their victims. Try again.

        1. People don’t commit crimes under the assumption that they’re going to get caught. Not only that, but people who do commit crimes like that generally don’t go out and research all the potential penalties for getting caught. After all, that’s not part of the plan.

          That’s why harsh sentences aren’t an effective deterrent.

          1. If we assume at least a somewhat rational act on the part of the prospective criminal, then they’re making an expected value calculation: the chance I succeed times the reward I expect to get minus the chance I’ll get caught times the expense of punishment. Even if they aren’t mathematically literate, they are in some sense performing that calculation even if in some fuzzy manner.

            Up the “expense of punishment” enough, and it might tip the scales for some of them. The real question is, how do you measure the effect at scale?

            1. Most criminals aren’t rational. By that I mean a lot of crimes are fueled by passion or desperation. They aren’t looking beyond the immediate. So they don’t even consider the penalties. They simply haven’t thought that far ahead. Someone desperate enough to rob a store at gunpoint likely hasn’t considered the penalties, let alone of getting caught. They are in the moment. In cases like that it doesn’t matter what the penalties are. They won’t have a deterring effect since they aren’t a factor in the person’s mind.

        2. There are already penalties for murder, I believe. Do you mean that this law can deter you from going with a friend to steal something, in case he murders someone?

      3. Not in any conception of the ethics of crime and punishment that I’m aware of, except that of the state of Texas.

        Then I suggest you broaden your thinking, because that’s the felony murder rule just about everywhere.

        Now, whether anyone but the triggerman should catch the death penalty, that’s a separate question.

    2. The problem with the way we administer the death penalty in this country is that we administer it too often based on how much the jury hates the defendant instead of concrete criteria that if enforced would serve to deter other criminals from committing crimes.

      The death penalty as a deterrent seems silly to me. There are already very stiff penalties for crimes and people commit them anyways. People who are going to commit crimes will commit crimes. (And conversely, if you severely loosened the penalty for, say, committing murder, most law abiding people would continue to refrain from murdering).

      The point of incarceration or the death penalty is to protect the public from a dangerous person. I am 100% opposed to the death penalty, but if it is going to be used the question should involve the danger that a person poses to potentially escape from prison or kill once imprisoned. As such, there’s too much subjectivity involved to create a “concrete set of criteria”. It necessarily has to be decided individual by individual.

    3. Except that that deterrent effect has never been seen in the wild. There’s been no uptick in witness murders or murders in general that could be linked to the repeal of the death penalty in the states that have done so.

      There are really two types of murderers. The deliberate ones who plan it out so that they don’t get caught. And in expecting to not get caught, the difference between life and death is irrelevant.

      The other are those that do it on the spur of the moment in response to circumstance – like the guy who shot the clerk in this story. He didn’t weigh how being caught for murder in Texas is worse than being caught in CA, he just had a stressful situation, an uppity clerk, and his manhood called into question so he just acted.

  8. Are you also guilty of murder if the clerk shoots your friend in the back as he’s running out the door with an unpaidfor twelve pack?

    1. Yep. You’re responsible for anyone the cops kill, even by accident, after a crime.

      1. I know that’s the law in many places, but I don’t like it.

        I’m thinking of situations where an innocent person dies.

      2. The felony laws are so screwy now, you might be, but you should not be. Unless you are armed, it is not a felony thus no felony murder rule.

        1. If the cops say you were armed then you were armed. Even if you weren’t.

    2. No because stealing a 12 packed unarmed is not a felony nor should it be.

  9. This pretty clearly violates Enmund on these facts. How has he not yet (?) filed a collateral attack in federal court? Surely some enterprising activists would have taken it pro bono.

    I have to assume (a) he did and totally screwed up, or (b) the facts are not quite as reflected in this or other news stories.

  10. Three former jurors have said they feel the government’s presentation to them of a discredited psychiatrist who predicted with certainty,” Tyler said in a statement Friday, “and without evaluating Mr. Wood, that Mr. Wood would be criminally violent in the future was unfair.

    But they would have felt just fine if the guy had bothered to wander into the office and look at the defendant for 15 minutes, right? That would have made the difference?

    Because its not like a psychiatrist can provide any *objective* evidence supporting that diagnosis.

    1. He used toe of frog when the spellbook specifically called for eye of newt.

  11. I don’t think the jury got the verdict wrong – I think the judge got the sentence wrong.

    This shouldn’t have even been a ‘life with parole’ sentence.

  12. One of the reasons for FM is to be able to convict in situations where nobody knows who actually pulled the trigger. Imagine a robbery where someone was killed. X says y did it, y said x did it. This raises reasonably doubt for both, but it’s obvious that one of them pulled the trigger.

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