Stop the Execution: Jeff Wood Faces Death Tomorrow for a Murder He Didn't Commit
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Imagine being 14 years old and waiting to learn whether your father is going to live or die. Only you're not in a hospital waiting room, or anticipating dreadful news from a war zone. You are in Texas, and your father is on death row. His life is in the hands of seven people who will sit around a table and, in a deliberate manner, officially decide whether he should, indeed, be strapped to a gurney and injected with lethal chemicals, as planned. On the narrow chance that they decide to grant clemency, it is then up to the governor, a man who has signed off on more executions than any other in the country, to follow through.
This is what Paige Lynn Wood went through all day yesterday, which also happened to be her father's 35th birthday. In the end, her worst fears were realized: On Tuesday afternoon, the board decided, in a vote of 7-0, to execute her father, Jeff Wood. Wood is scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday night for a murder he did not commit. It's not just that he has a strong innocence claim, or that his state-appointed council was completely incompetent during his capital trial. The fact is, Wood did not kill anyone -- and no one argues that he did. The person who committed the murder for which he is scheduled to die was already executed, six years ago.
The Crime, an Overzealous Prosecutor and a Man Named "Dr. Death"
On New Years Day 1996, 22-year-old Jeff Wood was in on a plot to rob a Texaco convenience store in Kerrville, Texas, along with a man named Daniel Reneau. The store's assistant manager was an accomplice in the robbery: He was going to help Reneau navigate the store. But things didn't go according to plan, and in the early hours of Jan. 2, Reneau shot their friend Kriss Keeran, who was working behind the counter, in the face, killing him instantly.
Wood was startled when he heard the gunshot, but he reportedly helped carry out the subsequent robbery anyway, stealing several thousand dollars. He and Reneau were arrested within 24 hours. They confessed to the crime, and Wood led police to the murder weapon.
While it remains unclear to what extent Wood was supposed to participate in the robbery, what is absolutely undisputed is that Wood had no role in Keeran's murder. According to his attorneys, he was not even aware that Reneau was carrying a gun. After all, the robbery was supposed to be an inside job. As reiterated in the clemency brief filed by Woodâ€™s defense attorneys early this month, "Reneau -- the only person inside the store and who carried a weapon -- alone made the decision to take Keeran's life. Mr. Wood was outside the store in his brother's truck."
Months later, during the trial of Daniel Reneau, there was no ambiguity over who had killed Keeran. According to Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle , "the state argued that he was responsible for Keeran's murder and portrayed Wood as little more than a sap, steamrolled by the villainous Reneau."
Renaeu was sentenced to death in March 1997. He was executed in 2002. Following the execution, the Dallas Morning News reported that when "asked on death row last week to identify the shooter, Reneau had a one-word reply: 'Me.'"
Having locked in a death sentence for Reneau, it should have defied logic and legal ethics for prosecutors to change the story to make Wood the real villain. But that's what happened. "At Wood's trial," reports Smith, "prosecutors reversed their strategy, arguing that Wood deserved to die because he'd gotten Reneau to 'do his dirty work.'"
Wood's defense lawyers were useless. "Bowing to Mr. Wood's emotional and irrational insistence, Mr. Wood's appointed lawyers declined to cross-examine any witnesses or present any evidence on Mr. Wood's behalf," his appeals attorneys argue. "Mr. Wood's trial attorneys called Mr. Wood's actions a 'gesture of suicide.'" If anything, it was an assisted suicide. Reports Smith, "not only did (Wood's defense) withhold from the jury evidence of his troubled youth, but they also failed to cross-examine any state witnesses, including the wildly speculative testimony of Dr. James Grigson -- derisively known by many, including colleagues in the psychiatric community, as 'Dr. Death' for predictably offering testimony in capital cases that a defendant would pose a danger to society, one of the questions a jury must decide in order to impose a death sentence." (In 1995, Grigson was kicked out of the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for "flagrant ethical violations.")
Thus, one year after Renaeu was given a death sentence for killing Keeran, Wood, despite not having been present to witness the murder, was given a death sentence for the same crime.
The Case of Kenneth Foster Jr.
The case of Jeff Wood may sound beyond the pale, even for the state that carries out more executions than any other jurisdiction in the country, but it is by no means the first time the state of Texas has tried to kill two people for a murder committed by one person. In fact, at this same time last year, Kenneth Foster Jr. faced execution in a case with striking similarities to Jeff Wood's. Foster was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood Jr., despite the fact that the actual murder had been committed by another man.
Foster was 19 years old and acting as the "getaway driver" in a series of robberies when one of the people in the car, a man named Mauriceo Brown, shot and killed LaHood, the son of a prominent attorney, at the end of the night. Foster was 80 feet away -- like Wood, waiting in the car -- when Brown pulled the trigger. He had the windows rolled up and was unaware that a murder was taking place. Mauriceo Brown admitted to the murder; he was executed in 2006.
Last year, Foster's life was saved by a grassroots movement to stop his execution. At the center of the public outcry was the injustice of a legal statute, one that, in its application, is uniquely Texan.
An Unjust Law
Foster and Wood were both sentenced under Texas's "law of parties," which is a twist on a conspiracy statute that allows a defendant to be held accountable for a crime even if he or she did not commit it. As I explained in writing about the Foster case last summer, in the state of Texas, "this can mean sentencing someone to death even if he or she had no proven role in a murder."
Texas's law states that "if, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it." Defendants, the Texas courts say, can be held responsible for "failing to anticipate" that the "conspiracy -- in Foster's case, the robberies, for which he was the getaway driver -- would lead to a murder.
In Wood's case, the murder was also unplanned. Thus, he too is to be executed for "failing to anticipate" that someone would be killed.
As he faced execution, Foster shared something else in common with Wood: He had a young daughter who was a courageous voice of protest on behalf of her father. At a July 2007 rally, 11-year-old Nydesha Foster read from an essay about her father. "They hate on my dad because they say, 'he should have known better.' Are they following the law to the letter? Or the letter to the law?" She continued:
I stand as a child in the light of redemption. I benefit from his kisses and what he does even when people don't look or listen. So what is justice? Shame on you, Texas, because this time you're really wrong. This is my poem, my prayer, my song. That you will be known for something other than killing and ignoring the truth. We all make mistakes. Even you.
You can watch it here.
Like Nydesha, Paige Lynn Wood has stood in public to defend the life of her father. Pictures of her and other family members at rallies, making signs and approaching the governor's mansion can be found on the Save Jeff Wood Web site. So can her poetry.
One of her poems is called "Waiting."
I sit and wait â€¦ And wonder/I have been waiting my whole life
All the time wondering â€¦ Is my daddy coming home?
One is titled "Texas Took My Dad."
My dad is not the killer/That you are led to believe he is.
He is a kind and gentle soul who only tried to do/What he believed was best for me
... And for those of you/Who want to kill my dad â€¦
For shame, for shame/It's you who are now to blame/for taking away my life!
Tell Gov. Rick Perry Not to Execute Jeff Wood
Jeff Wood's supporters are urging the governor of Texas to grant a 30-day stay of execution. Call or fax the governor today:
Phone: (512) 463-2000
Fax: (512) 463-1849
****UPDATE: On Thursday, August 21, a federal appeals court granted a last-minute stay of execution, on the grounds that Wood is not mentally competent for execution. Thanks to all of you who helped get the word out!****
Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet's Rights & Liberties and War on Iraq Special Coverage. She is a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.