Jeff Wood didn’t kill anyone, but Texas will execute him anyway
Even the prosecutors agree that Wood didn’t kill anybody, but Texas is big on executions. In the view of the Texas government, just because a person did not commit a crime is no reason not to execute him. Jordan Smith reports in The Intercept:
It was just after 4 p.m. on July 23 and the temperature was firmly in the triple digits by the time 20-year-old Nick Been took to the microphone set up outside the iron gates that surround the Texas governor’s mansion in Austin. A small crowd of anti-death penalty activists had joined Been’s friends and family on the sunny street just steps from the state’s red granite Capitol. They were there to call for Gov. Greg Abbott to halt the impending execution of Been’s uncle, Jeff Wood, who is scheduled to die on August 24, just five days after his 43rd birthday, for a crime that everyone, including prosecutors, admits he did not commit.
Nick Been was not yet born when Wood was arrested on January 2, 1996, for the robbery and murder of his friend Kriss Keeran, a clerk at a Texaco station in the Hill Country town of Kerville that Wood and his friends frequented. And he was just a toddler when Wood was sentenced to die in March 1998. Indeed, he and his brothers have lived their entire lives under the shadow of their uncle’s execution. The experience has made them fierce abolitionists.
In 2008, when Nick was 12, the same year Wood received his first execution date, the boys and Wood’s daughter officially formed Kids Against the Death Penalty. Wood’s execution was stayed that August, and over the years the kids’ activism grew. Subchapters of KADP were formed in Texas and Europe; the boys were invited to speak at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Switzerland, and they rallied at the Texas Capitol on execution days. They joined their mother, Terri Been, and other activists in lobbying activities during biennial sessions of the state legislature. In particular, they asked lawmakers to change a troubling provision of Texas law, a statute responsible for sending Wood to death row. Under Texas’ so-called law of parties, a person who never killed anyone can nonetheless be sentenced to death.
Wood was sitting in a truck outside the Texaco when Danny Reneau went inside and shot Keeran dead. Wood has said he had no idea that Reneau even had a gun or that Reneau would shoot his friend. Yet under the law of parties, prosecutors were allowed to impute to Wood the same level of responsibility for Keeran’s death as Reneau, the triggerman.
An extension of the theory of accomplice liability, the law holds that if two or more conspirators agree to commit one crime — say, a robbery — but instead, one of them commits another crime — say, murder — each party can be held responsible for the murder, regardless of individual intent, based on the notion that the conspirators should have anticipated that the crime committed would actually happen.
Texas is among five states that approve “actively” pursuing the death penalty for an accomplice who lacked intent to kill; the vast majority require intent as a prerequisite to seeking the death penalty against a party to a crime.
Put simply, Texas’s law is unjust, Been told supporters outside the governor’s mansion, because it “punishes affiliations” and not actions. “How does it get more unfair than that?” he asked the crowd, tearing up as he spoke. “My uncle is a victim of the Texas system. He is sentenced to be executed for a crime he did not — did not — commit.”
On Death Row for Robbery
According to the state, Wood conspired with Reneau to rob the Texaco station on January 2, 1996, when there would be a large amount of cash on hand because of holiday bank closures. That he was neither in the store when Keeran was shot nor responsible for shooting Keeran, the state argued, did not mitigate his responsibility for the murder. In one of two statements to police, Wood apparently acknowledged that he was aware that Reneau had a gun on him the morning of the murder.
Wood’s family and attorneys dispute that narrative. There was a plot to rob the store of its cash receipts, but Keeran and another store employee were in on the plan, they say, which was actually supposed to occur on January 1. When the employees backed out, Wood did too, and so on the morning of January 2, he had no idea that Reneau intended to carry out the crime, let alone kill anyone. And it was not unusual for Wood to drop by the store multiple times a day, so the simple fact of going to the store that morning did not ring any alarm bells for him. “The plan was supposed to happen the day before, you know,” said Wood’s sister Terri Been. “It ceased to be a plan when it didn’t happen on the date it was scheduled for.”
After the gunshot rang out, Wood entered the store and, under threat from Reneau, helped him to carry out the store’s safe and remove a video surveillance tape. Terri Been says it is clear that Wood is guilty of robbery — despite the fact that Reneau threatened the life of Wood’s young daughter if he did not help to remove the safe — and she agrees that he should be punished accordingly. But, as the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, robbery alone is not punishable by death. “People who murder people get out of prison in 15 years,” she told a television reporter during the rally outside the governor’s mansion. “My brother is on death row for robbery.” . . .
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