Why is Texas Executing a Man Who Didn’t Kill Anyone?

Jeff Wood was in the car when an acquaintance shot his friend, who was working as a gas station clerk in Kerrville. Now he’s on death row, sentenced under Texas’ “law of parties.”

By Rhonda Fanning & Laura RiceAugust 3, 2016 11:03 am| ,

Much has been said of Texas’ top rank when it comes to the administration of the death penalty. Notwithstanding the state’s record, the state still reserves the ultimate punishment for what most of us would consider the worst of the worst crimes. One man set to die this month in Texas killed a correctional officer while he was behind bars for murder. Another was the trigger man in a murder-for-hire.

But the third man actually didn’t kill anyone. Jeff Wood pulled no trigger and had not even planned to commit a crime that morning – and yet, he’s scheduled to die later this month.

Jordan Smith, a reporter for the Intercept, said Wood was with an acquaintance, Danny Reneau, at a Texaco station in Kerrville in early January 1996. Wood and friends of his who worked at the Texaco employees had plotted to rob the Texaco the day before, on New Year’s Day.

“But the employees who were in on it backed out and so did Wood,” Smith says. “So the next day, when they go to the gas station, (Wood) had no idea in mind that anything was going to happen. Indeed, they went to this gas station quite often, so it was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Wood didn’t know Reneau brought a gun.

“(Wood) hears a shot and he runs into the store and his friend Chris is dead,” she says.  “And then Danny Reneau threatens him, says he’ll hurt his daughter unless he helps Danny to steal the safe and a video surveillance tape that caught the murder.”

Smith says Wood could be considered a co-conspirator with Reneau on the original plot if it had happened as planned on January 1. But Wood had backed out.

“In this case, there’s absolutely no indication that Wood had any intention of robbing that store or of murdering his friend,” Smith says.

In the vast majority of states with capital punishment, Smith says the Supreme Court has been clear.

“You have to have some intent to kill because robbery is not punishable by death,” Smith says. “It’s just that Texas is a sort of outlier, where intent is literally written into the law that it’s not required. And Texas has already executed five people who were non-trigger men in an accomplice case.”

Smith says Wood’s case is “troublesome” because he’s on death row for robbery, by aiding Reneau in stealing the safe and videotape. The system has to have a way to hold accomplices liable for the actions of their fellow accomplices, Smith says, but the problem is how it’s applied.

“There’s a lot of disagreement about what conspiracy means under the law of parties and that it has been too broadly applied to catch people in a net that could sentence them to death,” she says. “For unclear reasons, the question of whether this punishment runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments has never been asked in any of his appeals.”

Smith says Wood’s sentence is “disturbing.”

“You could be sentenced to a relatively light term for taking someone else’s life,” she says, “and yet you have a man here who in on death row for robbery, after the fact.”

Wood, who was issued a stay on his execution in 2008, is scheduled to be executed August 24.

Post by Hannah McBride.