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Thursday, August 21, 2008 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Tensions High as NATO Suspends Formal Contacts with...
2008-08-21

Texas Death Row Prisoner Faces Execution Tonight for Murder He Didn’t Commit

Guests

Liliana Segura, board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a staff writer and editor at Alternet.org.

Danny Wood, Jeff Wood’s father

Kristin Wood, Jeff Wood’s wife.

Mitzie Wood, Jeff Wood’s mother.

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A thirty-five-year-old man on death row in Texas faces execution tonight for a murder he didn’t commit. Jeff Wood is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6:00 p.m., unless Governor Rick Perry grants him clemency. Wood was an accomplice in a 1996 convenience store robbery. He was sitting in a truck outside when the clerk was shot and killed. The man who pulled the trigger was executed six years ago, but Wood was given a death sentence for the same crime under the Texas law of parties. We go to the prison where Jeff Wood is awaiting death to speak with his wife, mother and father outside. We also speak with Liliana Segura of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. [includes rush transcript]

Governor of Texas: 512-463-2000

Guests:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A thirty-five-year-old man on death row in Texas faces execution tonight for a murder he didn’t commit. Jeff Wood is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6:00 p.m., Texas time, unless Governor Rick Perry grants him clemency.

No one disputes the fact that Jeff Wood did not kill anyone. But he was convicted and sentenced to death under Texas’s law of parties for the 1996 murder of convenience store clerk Kriss Keeran. Wood was sitting in a truck outside the store when the murder occurred. The man who confessed to the killing, Daniel Reneau, was executed six years ago.

But the Texas law of parties allows accomplices to be subject to the death penalty if a murder occurs during a crime, even if he or she did not commit it. So one year after Reneau was given a death sentence for killing Keeran, Jeff Wood was given a death sentence for the same crime, essentially for failing to anticipate that a murder would occur during the robbery.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Wood clemency on Tuesday, the day he turned thirty-five on death row in Livingston, Texas. His lawyers have filed a clemency letter with Governor Rick Perry, requesting a thirty-day reprieve. The letter notes that Wood may be incompetent to be executed and requires mental health services. An initial jury had found Wood to be mentally incompetent to stand trial.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by three guests: by Kristin Wood, Jeff Wood’s wife; and Danny and Mitzie Wood, his mother and father. In this exclusive, they join us from Livingston, Texas. They’re sitting right outside of the prison, where Jeff is now waiting to die.

We’re also joined here in New York by Liliana Segura. She’s a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a staff writer and editor at Alternet.org.

We’re going to start right here in New York. Liliana, you’ve been following this case extensively. Lay it out from the beginning, and explain this law of parties.

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, basically, in the early hours of January 2nd, 1996, Jeff Wood was sitting in his brother’s pickup truck outside of this Texaco station in Kerrville, Texas. And he, in the preceding weeks, had had discussions with Daniel Reneau about possibly holding up this store, and it was supposed to be an inside job. They knew the store. They knew the people who worked there. They hung out there. And this man named Bill Bunker, the assistant manager, had said that he would help them navigate the security cameras and the safe and all of that. But when it came —-

AMY GOODMAN: He was in on it, the -— Bill Bunker?

LILIANA SEGURA: He was in on it, yeah. But when it came down to that morning, things didn’t go according to plan, and the person behind the counter instead was the man who was later shot, was Kriss Keeran. Now, Kriss was also friends with these guys, and it’s disputable whether or not he also knew about it. But when it came down to it, he didn’t cooperate, and Daniel Reneau shot him in the face, and he died instantly.

Now, at the time, Jeff Wood was sitting in the car. He heard the shot. He ran in. It’s unclear what happened immediately, but he clearly saw that Daniel had a gun and helped him carry out this robbery, and they came away with a few thousand dollars. They were arrested soon thereafter. They confessed to the crime. And Wood helped lead police to the murder weapon.

So, as you laid it out, you know, what happened after that was that Daniel Reneau went to trial, and it was — at trial, it was undisputed. He was the killer, he admitted to it. And Wood was characterized as sort of this hapless sidekick who didn’t really have that much to do with the murder itself. And then, when it came down to try Wood for the crime, he actually initially was found incompetent to stand trial. He was deemed, you know, delusional, mentally unstable — he actually spent some time in a mental institute — and then, later on, was deemed by another jury to actually be competent to stand trial. You know, fast-forward a year later, in 1998, Jeff Wood was sentenced to death a year after Daniel Reneau was sentenced to death for the same murder.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, the Supreme Court has ruled in other cases that people who are mentally retarded could not be executed, but the issue of mental illness is not as clear, is it?

LILIANA SEGURA: It’s not as clear, although there’s a very current case, the case of Scott Pannetti out of Texas, that says that, you know, mental illness absolutely is grounds for an execution not to follow through.

But the more relevant Supreme Court rulings in this case have to do with the law of parties, which is the law that you mentioned. This is a law that — there are two decisions that the Supreme Court has made that inform this question, and the first was in 1982, the decision in Enmund v. Florida, which said that a person should not be sentenced to death if they didn’t have a direct role in committing a murder. And then, five years later, in Tison v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that if a person had a role in a crime in which they showed a reckless disregard for human life, that a death sentence was appropriate. So, supporters of the law of parties and defenders of it on legal grounds look to Tison v. Arizona. But Enmund v. Florida is really the prevailing view. It’s very odd or very rare for somebody to be sentenced to death for a crime in which they weren’t the trigger person.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Wood know that Reneau had the gun?

LILIANA SEGURA: No. Well, his lawyers have said, have argued, you know, that he absolutely didn’t know. They even say that the day that the crime was carried out, Wood had tried to dissuade Reneau from taking the gun. So, apparently he was very surprised when he heard the shot, not only because he was startled, but because he didn’t realize that Reneau had the gun.

AMY GOODMAN: But it’s irrelevant in the law of parties? It doesn’t matter whether he knew or not?

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, it is — it’s definitely relevant, because the question — it really hinges on this question of whether a murder could have been anticipated, whether this person who committed in this — who participated in this conspiracy to commit a felony could have anticipated that a murder would be carried out. In this case, if he thought that Daniel Reneau didn’t have a gun, then absolutely he couldn’t have anticipated that this would have happened. But the other thing is that this was an inside job. Again, there was no reason that they would have needed to, you know, bring a gun in the first place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But there is the issue proponents of his being executed would raise, that he then proceeded with the robbery after the shooting of the victim, after the killing of the victim.

AMY GOODMAN: What about his counsel?

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, it was — his counsel was practically nonexistent. And actually, this is one of the huge problems that — this has only really come out in the clemency brief that his current attorneys have filed. But his counsel basically — first of all, he tried to fire them halfway through the trial. I mean, after he was deemed mentally incompetent, he tried to fire them. They said this is, quote-unquote, "suicide," what he’s doing. But they still — they failed to bring up his abuse as a child, his mental — his potential mental incompetency, his — all of these factors.

But then, during the sentencing phase, this man named — well, nicknamed “Dr. Death,” a man named Dr. James P. Grigson, who is nicknamed “Dr. Death,” he is a man who has been brought in by the State of Texas in numerous death penalty cases to argue that the defendant stands to, you know, threaten society basically, that this person needs to be sentenced to death because he poses a danger to society. Now, this person in 1995 was kicked out of the American Psychiatric Association and for “flagrant ethical violations,” quote-unquote. And this is all — this all happened before Wood’s trial, and his attorneys failed to bring it up.

AMY GOODMAN: They didn’t cross-examine anyone.

LILIANA SEGURA: That’s right. They didn’t cross-examine anyone. And so, I mean, he was really railroaded.

Now, the other thing to note in this case that’s so important and so distressing is that, you know, exactly a year ago at this time, I was sitting in this seat talking about the case of Kenneth Foster, who is a man who at the last second was saved by a grassroots movement to stop his execution. Kenneth Foster was also sentenced under the law of parties. He was nineteen years old, acting as the getaway driver in a series of robberies, that at the end of the night culminated with the death of a prominent attorney in San Antonio. Kenneth Foster was eighty feet away in a car with the windows rolled up, didn’t realize what had happened and nevertheless was sentenced to death for the murder, this murder that was committed by this man named Mauricio Brown. Mauricio Brown was executed in 2006. And Kenneth Foster still, in August of 2007, last year, faced execution for this crime. So it’s really distressing, in the sense that Texas clearly hasn’t learned its lesson about the law of parties.

AMY GOODMAN: And he didn’t die.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in that case, Rick Perry did — the Governor did —-

LILIANA SEGURA: Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- stop the execution.

LILIANA SEGURA: In that case, the Board of — the Texas Board of Prisons and — Pardons and Paroles voted, in a vote of six-to-one, to recommend clemency, and that had a lot to do with the fact that there was a huge public outcry against the law of parties. Editorials were run in prominent Texas papers. Major international figures, Desmond Tutu, you know, came out and said this is an egregious miscarriage of justice. And despite the fact that the facts of this case are very, very similar, the Board voted in a unanimous vote, seven-to-zero, on Tuesday to proceed with the execution.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeff Wood is scheduled to die 6:00, as is the custom in Texas, 6:00 Texas time. We’re joined now by his family, by his wife, Kristin Wood, by his mother and father, Danny and Mitzie Wood. They’re outside the prison in Livingston, Texas, where Jeff is now. He will soon be moved to the prison where he could be executed.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Danny Wood. Tell us about your son Jeff.

DANNY WOOD: Of five children that we have, Jeff is probably the kindest-hearted of any of them. He loves deeply. He cares about people. He’s willing to help anybody at any time. We talked to one of the ministers at the prison yesterday, and he had given us feedback as to what both guards and prisoners had said about Jeff, and he’s pretty well loved throughout the people that he’s dealt with, and he’s exhibited these same qualities there. Knowing his background of what he cares for people, anybody that would know him, anybody that’s ever dealt with him could tell that the possibility of hurting anybody, let alone killing him, is not within Jeff’s nature.

We’ve watched him grow. We’ve watched him be competitive. We’ve watched him love people. He never knew a stranger. He made friends easily, and he’s entertaining. He was always wanting to keep somebody happy, stop conflicts.

The situation as described by the ladies we were listening to — described his situation very well, of his background, of who he was. There’s things that were kept out of the trial that was never allowed to be presented as evidence. Part of the information that people had used to convict Danny, witnesses weren’t even allowed to testify in Jeff’s behalf. I was kept as a witness for the prosecution, so I couldn’t even discuss with the attorneys anything that was happening or give advice, bring up — not that I’m an attorney, but to enlighten them on who Jeff was and what he was about. He was — we’re just so proud of Jeff. [inaudible]

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. Wood, why were you kept as a witness for the prosecution?

DANNY WOOD: That wasn’t clearly made evident to me exactly why, other than the fact that all the way through the process, from the time that we knew about it, I pushed for the — everybody involved and the younger son, who was exposed to a film and was threatened and [inaudible] — I was one pushing for the truth to come out, no matter where it fell, no matter which came. Jeff had made some bad decisions. We didn’t want it to affect the rest of the family or the situation, and particularly his younger brother, who was only fourteen at the time.

And these happenings — I really feel personally is that they didn’t want me to either strengthen the case for the defense by knowledge of who Jeff was and some of the other findings that they never allowed to come out. The judge in the case just built a corral and shuttled it in, only the information he wanted heard. He followed the case, even though there was a change of venue. He followed it — and one competency hearing, in which he was declared incompetent in Fredericksburg, to two weeks or three weeks later, to a second competency hearing in San Antonio, to the final trials, there was never — he had an agenda, is what it seems like.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to move to Kristin Wood, because we’re going to try to fix your microphone, Mr. Wood. Kristin is Jeff Wood’s wife, sitting outside of the prison right now in Livingston. What is your understanding at this point of the possibility of the Governor intervening here and stopping the execution of your husband?

KRISTIN WOOD: Well, he has the power to do that. And I — we just hope and pray that he will do the right thing and do so, so, you know, we can get more time to get the truth out there, because right now I’m speaking on the behalf of the family, and we all — we’re just all numb, because, you know, no one thought it would go this far, because everyone has known all along that Jeff did not murder anyone. So we didn’t think it would come as far as this.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and we’re going to come back to Jeff Wood’s family. They’re in Livingston, Texas. Kristin Wood, his wife; Danny Wood, his father; Mitzie Wood is also sitting outside the prison right now, and we will speak with her. Our guest in studio here, Liliana Segura, she works with Alternet.org and is a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Wood is set to die 6:00, Texas time, today, unless the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, intervenes. Our guests are his family: his wife, Kristin; his mother and father, Danny and Mitzie Wood. They’re in Livingston, Texas.

Liliana Segura is with us in New York. She’s been following this case, on the board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Can you talk about — you were mentioning Kenneth Foster. He did not die a year ago at this time under the same law because, you feel, of the public pressure.

LILIANA SEGURA: Absolutely, yeah. Talking to his attorney afterwards, you know, he said that the on-the-ground — the grassroots organizing that took place and the editorials that ran in just about every major paper in Texas and the international attention, all of that really put a lot of pressure on the board and on the governor to examine the case. And it really came down to the wire. As I was sitting here last year, I remember we didn’t know what was going to happen, but in the end, the board voted six-to-one, which was just almost unprecedented — that never happens in Texas — to recommend clemency. The board has to recommend clemency, and the governor has to sort of sign off on it. So, at that point, it became about convincing — you know, really pressuring the governor to take their recommendation and grant clemency, and that’s what happened.

And in his statement where he granted clemency, Perry sort of referred to the law of parties and said this is something that needs to be reexamined. And one would hope that, one year later in the state of Texas, maybe this actually would have happened, this would have — this law would have been reexamined. But yet, we find ourselves in a situation where the board has voted unanimously to just go ahead, ignore the facts of the case, ignore the controversy over the law of parties and sign off on the execution. So —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: And for those who may want to weigh in with the Governor on this matter, where would they go?

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, right now the main thing to do is to call the Governor. And I have the number right here, and I can give it, give it right now. It’s (512) 463-2000. And you can also go to savejeffwood.com, and the information to email and to call is there. And basically, I mean, given that the board has already made its recommendation, the governor -— it really — the Governor has to — it’s up to him right now. So the more pressure we can put on him, the better.

AMY GOODMAN: The legislature, is it weighing the law of parties?

LILIANA SEGURA: So, yeah. Basically, what they’re looking for right now, what we’re looking for, is a thirty-day stay of execution. And that doesn’t mean that on the thirty-first day that, you know, the execution will follow through. I mean, what will happen then is that it would mean a new execution date. It would mean maybe six months, maybe a year, in which the Texas legislature could then look at the law of parties.

And the chance of this happening is actually quite good. Ten members of the Texas legislature have already wrote letters to the members of the board saying the law of parties is an aberration, we have to get rid of this. And so, there is energy around this issue right now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go back to Livingston, Texas, to the family of Jeff Wood: Kristin Wood, his wife, and Danny and Mitzie Wood. We wanted to turn to Mitzie Wood, his mother.

What kind of support are you getting in Texas? And when did you last see Jeff?

We’re going to try to get the audio for them fixed. Again, they are sitting right outside of the prison where Jeff is.

What happens, Liliana, in the course of a day like this? Texas is the place where more people are executed than anywhere in the country. He’s in the Livingston prison right now.

LILIANA SEGURA: Right. And basically, the death chamber is in Huntsville, Texas, and over the course of the day, in the hours preceding his execution, he is taken, you know, in a sort of heavily armed situation to the execution chamber, and the situation is called “death watch” in the preceding hours. And the family — you know, in Texas it’s very common that there are vigils, there are protesters, that sort of thing.

But it’s really — I mean, one talks about the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment because of the execution, but when you consider the fact that this is a man who still doesn’t know right now whether or not he’s going to live or die, those hours and then the extended hours of waiting, when the governor still hasn’t made a decision, it’s really appalling.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s try to go back to Livingston. Mitzie Wood, I hope people will just strain to listen carefully. We’re having some problems with the mikes outside the prison. When did you last see your son? What is he saying right now?

MITZIE WOOD: Last saw our son yesterday for about thirty minutes early, early in the morning. And basically, he’s more worried about how his dad and I and his siblings are taking this, as well as his nieces and nephews. He’s holding very well. He’s got a strong Christian walk. And as such, he’s relying heavily on the Lord in taking him through this, be it we have to go through with the execution or if Governor Perry will like give us clemency, at least at this time, for thirty days in order to review the case further. And it really needs to be reviewed, because there’s a lot of stuff that is not making sense. To me, even as a layperson not knowing anything about the law, I see the errors there. And I just hope he takes time and opens his heart to be receptive to do what we feel is right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mitzie Wood, your defense — the defense attorney for your son has maintained for quite some time that he was mentally ill and should not have been subjected to the death penalty as a result of this crime. Your sense of how the State has dealt with this issue?

MITZIE WOOD: I don’t think they’ve dealt with the issue very well at all. Jeff has always had learning disabilities. He was diagnosed at the age of four-and-a-half, five years of age with ADD. And of course, way back when, in the early — or, pardon me, late ’70s, early ’80s, nobody knew anything about ADD. It wasn’t prevalent to know exactly how long-term it was. They kept telling us, by the time he was twelve years old, that he would be out of it, it was a stage. Now, since then, we have learned it’s not.

And as such, the Governor, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the criminal justice system itself really have not helped his case at all. Sending him on an incompetency trial, finding him incompetent, sending him to Vernon State Hospital for twenty-two days, says they talked to the — one of the doctors up there for about two hours, and then says, “Oh, he’s competent,” I really have a problem with the Texas system. I don’t think that’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for joining us. Mitzie Wood, Danny Wood, Kristin Wood, the wife of Jeff Wood. Tomorrow, we will continue to report on this. Liliana Segura, last comment?

LILIANA SEGURA: I would just say that in these next few hours, please, please call the Governor. I can give that number again. It’s (512) 463-2000. And that’s all we can do at this moment. So, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Liliana Segura is with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a staff writer and editor at Alternet.org.

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