On January 29, I wrote something about Derek Bentley, who was executed in 1953 in England for a murder he didn’t commit. He was in police custody when his accomplice in an attempted robbery shot another officer. The reason for his execution was a strange law that held every party involved in a criminal act equally responsible, whether they agreed on the possible outcome or not.
The same thing is happening right now in Texas, the state with the highest executions in the country. Jeff Wood, who will be executed tomorrow unless Texas Governor Rick Perry intervenes, took part in a convenience store robbery in 1996. He waited outside in a car, while his accomplice Daniel Reneau entered the store and subsequently shot the clerk. Reneau was executed in 2002. Wood is facing the death penalty although he didn’t kill anybody; the Texas Penal Code has a law similar to the (long obsolete) British law, called “Law of Parties”. It states that all parties who commit a robbery together are equally responsible should one of them kill a person during the robbery.
The US Supreme Court held that imposition of the death penalty on a person who aids and abets a felony in the course of which a murder is committed by others but who does not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill violates the 8th and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution. (Edmund v. Florida 458 US 782, 1982)
Five years later, the Supreme Court created an exception to this general rule for those guilty of a murder that occurs in the commission of a felony who do not kill or intend to kill, but who have major personal involvement in the felony and display a reckless indifference to human life. (Tison v. Arizona, 481 US 137, 1987)
Clearly, Jeff Wood did not “display a reckless indifference to human life”; he wasn’t even present when the fatal shot was fired. Similar to Derek Bentley, Wood has severe mental, emotional, and learning disabilities. He spent two weeks in a mental hospital before he was considered fit enough to stand trial. His appointed lawyers were highly incompetent. Clearly, Jeff Wood does not deserve to be executed.
If you want to write to Texas’s Governor, sign a petition, or learn more about the case, visit the Save Jeff Wood website.
Of course, I’m opposed to the death penalty per se, even if the REAL criminals, those directly responsible for the death of tens- or hundreds- thousands of people (like the members of the current administration) would ever be brought to justice.