Will an unjust law claim another victim?

August 5, 2008

Bryan McCann of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty explains that Texas' Law of Parties--under which defendants can be held responsible for murder just by being at the scene--is poised to take another life.

AT THIS time last year, the grassroots campaign to save Texas death row inmate Kenneth Foster Jr. was in full swing.

Kenneth had been sentenced to death in 1997 for driving the car Mauriceo Brown exited one night in 1996 to shoot and kill Michael LaHood Jr. He was convicted under the Texas Law of Parties, which allows prosecutors to treat those physically present at the scene of a murder as if they had pulled the trigger. Kenneth had no idea a murder was going to take place, yet he was tried alongside Brown for capital murder.

The Save Kenneth Foster Campaign won a steady stream of editorial support from Texas newspapers, and there was a palpable sense that our coalition of family and activists was having an impact. One month later, hours before Kenneth was to receive lethal injection for driving a car, we learned that Gov. Rick Perry, who presided over more executions than any governor in American history, was commuting Kenneth's sentence.

We won. Perry even expressed misgivings about a "Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously," adding, "it is an issue I think the legislature should examine."

Texas activists celebrate after Kenneth Foster Jr. was given clemency hours before his scheduled execution
Texas activists celebrate after Kenneth Foster Jr. was given clemency hours before his scheduled execution (Matthew Beamesderfer | SW)

In spite of Perry's reflections on that joyful day last August, Texas is again poised to execute a man who killed nobody.

Jeff Wood is slated to enter the death chamber on August 21, 2008 for the 1996 shooting death of a gas station clerk. Jeff sat in a car while another man, Daniel Reneau, entered a gas station and held up the attendant, Kris Keeran. According to the Save Jeff Wood Web site, when Keeran didn't move quickly enough, Reneau shot and killed him.

Hearing the shot, Jeff entered the gas station, saw Keeran's body and then discovered Reneau removing the gas station safe. According to the Web site, Reneau ordered Jeff at gunpoint to remove the surveillance tape and drive the getaway car. Jeff was also under the impression that the robbery--which had been planned for the day prior with the cooperation of station employees--had been called off.

BUT WHO needs evidence when you can exploit a defendant's weaknesses? Jeff has a well-documented history of mental illness. Physically and emotionally abused as a child, Jeff's condition makes him vulnerable to aggressive behavior from others. Even during the planning stages of the robbery, Reneau threatened to kill Jeff's family if he didn't cooperate.

Police interrogated Jeff without counsel and kept him awake for hours until he issued a confession he would later recant. Though Jeff was initially found mentally unfit to stand trial and sent to a mental hospital, it took, according to the court system, only a couple of weeks for him to miraculously reverse a lifetime of mental illness and become "trial ready."

Jeff's court-appointed lawyer neglected to call any witnesses during the punishment phase of the trial. In fact, like nearly all inmates on death row in the U.S., Jeff is there, in large part, because he couldn't afford adequate representation.

Even members of Kris Keeran's family oppose Jeff's execution. Keeran's cousin, Amanda Smith, has said, "It's insane to kill another person who did not kill Kris." Keeran's father is a death penalty opponent who spoke out against Reneau's execution in 2006.

Inspired by last summer's victory in Kenneth Foster's case, Jeff's own family has taken a leading role in fighting his execution. Along with anti-death penalty groups like the Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, they are organizing rallies in San Antonio and Austin to get the word out. Jeff's supporters have also circulated a petition and initiated a letter drive to make the case for clemency.

Kenneth's case said a lot about the hypocritical core of the death penalty. We're told that capital punishment is reserved for the worst of the worst. Yet Kenneth was waiting to die for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We're also told that the death penalty is intended to protect vulnerable citizens from violent people. But in the Jeff Woods case, we see a system ready to exploit a mentally ill man's vulnerabilities in order to secure a conviction.

Last summer, we showed that we could stop an execution in the belly of the beast and make a right winger like Perry admit the truth about a particularly draconian law. Now it's time to make Perry live up to his words and stop the execution of Jeff Wood.

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