Appeals court stays execution of Texas inmate who didn’t kill anyone

Ohio State Reformatory

In 1996, 22-year-old Jeffrey Wood was convicted with his friend Daniel Reneau in the shooting death of a store clerk in Texas, while the two allegedly attempted to steal a safe from the station where the clerk worked.

Reneau was executed in 2002, but Wood, seen as an accomplice because he waited in a truck in the gas station’s parking lot during the time of the crime, was not immediately put to death.

On August 19, 2016, after over 20 years in prison, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has stayed Wood’s death sentence in a 7-2 decision, claiming that Wood was not the person that actually pulled the trigger. Wood was originally scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday, August 24.

Wood’s case garnered significant publicity leading up to the Appeals Court decision. Texas State Representative Jeff Leach (R-Plano), a well-known conservative in the area, spearheaded the movement to get Wood’s death sentence commuted.

In a statement to the Texas Tribune, Rep. Leach said, “I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence. I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything.”

For one of the most conservative Republicans in the House, Rep. Leach’s advocacy’s desire to have Wood’s execution stayed signified a powerful argument against the legality of the death penalty for those who are not proven murderers in the state of Texas.

In the appeal, Wood’s attorneys argued that the prosecution’s expert witness, a psychiatrist, provided “false and misleading testimony” which violated Wood’s due process rights. The defense went as far as to say that the testimony was based on false scientific evidence regarding Wood’s “future dangerousness.”

The court upheld both of these arguments, but did not reference the defense’s third argument, which claimed that Wood’s role as an accomplice was too minimal for the death penalty requirements under the Eighth Amendment.

In a state that is well known for its death penalty practices (Wood’s execution would have been the seventh in Texas this year), this decision brings to light some important legal issues regarding the role of accomplices, also known as the “law of parties,” in capital cases.

Defense attorney Shawn Sukumar commented, “Over the past several years, the Supreme Court has begun to narrow the circumstances under which the death penalty can constitutionally be imposed.  It’s interesting to see a state like Texas begin to buck its history of resisting those changes, and may be a sign of things to come in other states.”

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