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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Execution Halted for Jeff Wood, Who Never Killed Anyone

Jeff Wood
Jeff Wood
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted the execution of Jeff Wood — a man who never killed anyone — six days before he was set to die by lethal injection. The order was issued on his 43rd birthday. 

The court issued a brief, two-page order Friday afternoon sending the case back to the original trial court so it can examine Wood's claim that a jury was improperly persuaded to sentence him to death by testimony from a highly criticized psychiatrist nicknamed “Dr. Death.” The order creates the possibility that Wood's death sentence could be thrown out, though not his conviction.

“The court did the right thing by staying Mr. Wood’s execution," Wood's attorney Jared Tyler said shortly after the order came down. "[He] is grateful for the opportunity to prove that his death sentence is unwarranted.”

Wood’s upcoming execution has gained national attention and highlighted Texas’ felony murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties, which holds that anyone involved in a crime resulting in death is equally responsible, even if they weren't directly involved in the actual killing. Recently, conservative state representatives have spoken out and written letters to the parole board in hopes of saving Wood’s life.

Wood was convicted in the 1996 murder of convenience store clerk Kriss Keeran in Kerrville, even though he was sitting outside in the truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, pulled the trigger.

During his sentencing trial, prosecutors brought in Dr. James Grigson, nicknamed “Dr. Death” because of how often he testified for the state in capital murder trials, to examine if Wood would be a future danger to society if he was given life without parole instead of death. A jury can only sentence someone to death if it unanimously agrees that person would present a danger.

In his recent appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Wood’s lawyers claimed Grigson lied to jurors about how many cases he had testified in and how often he found the defendant to pose a future danger. He also misled the jury by omitting the fact that he was ousted from the American Psychiatric Association, Wood's appeal claimed.

Throughout his career testifying in capital murder trials, the number of times Grigson claimed to have examined defendants for future dangerousness would change randomly and often drastically, the appeal states.

In the late 1980s, for example, Grigson testified in one trial that he had examined 180 to 182 cases, but seven months later, he claimed to have reviewed 156. And a year and a half later, the number jumped to ‘no fewer than 391,’ according to the appeal.

But no matter the raw number of cases, he always claimed he found about, or sometimes exactly, 40 percent of defendants to not be a future danger.

The order instructs the trial court to not only examine Grigson's truthfulness, but to consider Wood's argument that Grigson's opinion was based on junk science. Grigson did not examine Wood himself but based his projection of Wood's future dangerousness on a hypothetical person presented by the state. The practice was condemned by the American Psychiatric Association.

Click here to read the full article

Source: Texas Tribune, Jolie McCullough, August 19, 2016

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