A Texas man who did not actually kill anyone is set to be executed within the next two weeks, the Washington Post reported on Friday. It is incredibly, incredibly rare for such accomplices in a murder to be put to death, even in Texas, where executions are more common than anywhere in the country.
But Jeffrey Lee Wood is facing lethal injection on Aug. 24 for his role as getaway driver in a botched 1996 robbery that resulted in the death of Texaco convenience store clerk Kris Keeran.
The gunman in that case, a drifter named Daniel Reneau, was executed in 2002. Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network, told the Post that Wood would be the “least culpable person executed in the modern era of death penalty” if he is put to death later this month.
Here is the Post’s account of Wood’s role in the crime:
Court records say he was involved in a scheme with Reneau and the store’s assistant manager to steal a safe that they believed contained thousands of dollars. While the others had backed out, Reneau took it upon himself to steal the safe, court records say.
Based on testimony from Wood’s then-girlfriend, he asked Reneau to not bring his gun before the two drove to the convenience store that day. Reneau did anyway, without Wood’s knowledge.
The Post now reports that Wood is “borderline mentally disabled with an IQ of 80” and that his mother described him as an “eight-year-old in a man’s body.” He was initially declared incompetent to stand trial after a neuropsychologist found him to be delusional and unable to understand his circumstances, but the hospital reconsidered and he was eventually convicted. During that trial, a controversial psychologist named James Grigson and known as “Dr. Death” testified that Wood would “most certainly” commit a violent crime again. Grigson never actually examined Wood. He was originally scheduled to be executed in 2008, but that was delayed because of his lack of competence.
Only 10 executions out of more than 1,400 since the Supreme Court brought back the death penalty in 1976 involved people who did not directly kill anyone or hire someone to kill anyone. Five of those took place in Texas, according to the Post, on the basis of a 1970s statute called the law of parties that says anyone who “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit an offense” is liable for that crime.
The Texas Tribune reported last month that in 2007 then-Gov. Rick Perry changed the sentence of a getaway driver named Kenneth Foster from death to life, but then in 2009 refused to do so for a man in a similar situation named Robert Thompson even “after the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended clemency.” The shooter in that case received life in prison rather than the death penalty after cooperating with authorities.
The Post notes that 16 Catholic bishops in the state have written Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asking that he stay Wood’s death sentence.
Supreme Court precedent on the issue of executing those who did not actually physically commit or solicit a murder is mixed. As the Post noted in its 2008 coverage of the case, a 1982 decision called Enmund v. Florida determined that it was unconstitutional to execute a person involved in a murder if that person “does not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing take place, or lethal force will be employed.”
But in a 1987 ruling called Tison v. Arizona, the court ruled that the death penalty could be applied if a culprit was a “major participant” in the murder and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.” The two precedents would seem to contradict one another.
“That’s why I think this issue may come back to the Supreme Court,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Post in 2008 when Wood was originally set to die. “This is an area that needs some clarification.”
Without a determination from the court that such clarification is necessary or clemency from state officials, Wood will be put to death one week from Wednesday. If that happens, it will be one of the most noteworthy and saddest chapters in the history of the modern death penalty.