Defense Lawyers Try to Halt Execution

State primed to deliver another lethal injection

Death penalty opponents rally Tuesday outside the Capitol.
Death penalty opponents rally Tuesday outside the Capitol. (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1976, only six people have been executed for a murder in which they did not directly participate, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. If Texas proceeds with the scheduled Aug. 21 execution of Jeff Wood, that number will climb to seven. Lawyers for the death row inmate, trying to spare their client that fate, are asking the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend commuting Wood's sentence to life in prison.

Wood was sentenced to die for the 1996 murder of his friend Kris Keeran, during a botched robbery of a Kerrville Texaco station. Wood did not fire the gun that killed Keeran and wasn't inside the gas station when another friend, Danny Reneau, fired the fatal shot into Keeran's head. (Reneau was executed in 2002.) Nonetheless, according to the state, Wood is responsible for Keeran's death and should be executed. Wood was convicted under the state's law of parties, a conspirator liability statute that posits that if two or more people plan to commit one crime but another crime occurs, each person is equally responsible for that crime, if it was foreseeable. The state argues that Wood hatched with Reneau the plan to rob the Texaco, where their friend Keeran worked, on Jan. 2, when a large amount of cash would still be on hand because of holiday bank closures. That Wood was neither in the store when the killing began nor fired the fatal shot did not mean he was not equally liable for Keeran's murder, the prosecution argued.

But Wood's lawyers, Scott Sullivan and Jared Tyler (with the Texas Defender Service), argue that Wood did not plan to rob the store and, in fact, had no idea Reneau planned to do so – nor, they say, did Wood know Reneau was carrying a gun. Indeed, it isn't clear that Wood had any idea what Reneau would do, although it does appear Wood was privy to a plan hatched by Reneau and Texaco store manager Bill Bunker to lift the post-holiday cash. Wood's sister, Terri Been, says that Keer­an initially was in on the plan, but ultimately, she says, Wood and Keeran pulled out, followed by Bunker. As far as Wood knew, she says, the previous talk of a robbery was moot. "Mr. Wood undeniably shares responsibility for what happened to Mr. Keeran, and should be held accountable for his reckless acts, but no man ever deserves to die for another man's acts," Wood's attorneys wrote in his petition to the board, filed last week.

At Reneau's trial, 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. But at Wood's trial, prosecutors reversed their strategy, arguing that Wood deserved to die because he'd gotten Reneau to "do his dirty work." But the idea of Wood as "mastermind" baffles attorney Sullivan, who has represented Wood since 1998. "I've watched Jeff for ... nine years," he says. "This guy, his mental capacities are not sufficient to make him a mastermind." Wood was diagnosed with learning disabilities as a child, and school officials consistently categorized him as emotionally stunted. He always sought approval for his actions and, adds his family, was easily influenced by others. He was initially found incompetent to stand trial because he was incapable of helping his defenders. At the punishment phase of his trial, Wood tried to fire his attorneys, a request denied by the judge. Nonetheless, his trial attorneys followed Wood's orders: Not only did they 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 Wood's case, Grigson testified the defendant would pose a continuing threat to society if sentenced to anything other than death. That was clear to him, he said, because Wood was a manipulative person who failed to wear a disguise during the Texaco robbery. "You have an individual that is a user or manipulator of other people, and I'm thinking particularly in terms of where you're planning the robbery for two weeks," he testified, responding to a "hypothetical" robbery-murder presented by prosecutors that mirrored closely most of the facts of the Keeran killing. "Surely, you would have thought in terms of using a mask or a disguise where you wouldn't have to kill somebody, so this was a deliberate and intentional act in terms of the clerk that was going to be killed." (Wood's attorneys assert in the clemency petition that Grigson should not have been allowed to testify, in part because of his 1995 ouster from the American Psych­i­at­ric Association and Texas Society of Psych­i­at­ric Physicians for "flagrant ethical violations" – a fact the jury did not know because neither of Wood's attorneys conducted any cross-examination.)

Sullivan and Tyler argue now that executing Wood for a murder he did not commit would undermine Texas' entire death penalty scheme. The U.S. Supreme Court, they note, has said, "When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint." If Wood is executed, they write, "that risk will have come to fruition, and we all will have taken a descent into brutality unworthy of the State of Texas."

The Board of Pardons and Paroles can vote either to recommend or deny clemency for Wood. If they vote to commute Wood's sentence to life in prison, Gov. Rick Perry has the power to accept or deny the recommendation.

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More Jeff Wood
Death Watch: Executing Texas' Law of Parties
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Jeff Wood never killed anybody; Robert Pruett may not have either. Why does the state want to put them both to death?

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death penalty, Jeff Wood, Scott Sullivan, Kris Keeran, Jared Tyler, Board of Pardons and Paroles, Rick Perry

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