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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Rare Chance for Mercy on Texas’ Death Row

Jeff Wood
Jeff Wood
When it comes to capital punishment, there is not much official mercy to be found in the state of Texas.

As 537 death row inmates were executed there over the last 40 years, only two inmates were granted clemency. The last commutation to life in prison occurred nine years ago, when Gov. Rick Perry, despite his formidable tally of 319 executions, chose to make an exception and spare a man convicted of murder under the state’s arcane and patently unfair “Law of Parties.”

This law in effect holds that someone waiting outside at the wheel of a getaway car deserves the same capital punishment as his associate inside who shoots and kills a store clerk. This is the rough equation that now finds Jeffrey Wood on death row in Texas, 20 years after his involvement in just such a crime. The actual killer was executed in 2002; Mr. Wood faces execution next Wednesday as a somehow equally culpable party, unless the state commutes his sentence to life in prison.

The Law of Parties has been on trial as much as Mr. Wood has in the arduous criminal justice process in which he faces death. With an I.Q. of 80 and no criminal history, Mr. Wood, who was 22 then, was initially found by a jury to be incompetent to stand trial. But the state persisted, and he was convicted in a slipshod proceeding in which no mitigating evidence or cross-examination was attempted in his behalf during the crucial sentencing hearing.

Mr. Wood bizarrely demanded to represent himself, but was ruled incompetent as a counsel — yet not as a defendant. He maintained he was forced at gunpoint into being a robbery accomplice. As the case ground forward, a federal judge stayed the last scheduled execution date in 2008 because of Mr. Wood’s repeatedly eccentric behavior.

The theory underpinning the Law of Parties — that an accomplice deserves to die even though he did not kill the victim — has been abandoned as difficult to apply if not unjust in most state jurisdictions in recent decades. It holds that an accomplice should have anticipated the likelihood of a capital murder and deserves the ultimate penalty. Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, there have been only 10 executions in six states under accomplice culpability laws, in which defendants did not directly kill the victim, according to Texas Monthly. Five of them have been in Texas. Jared Tyler, Mr. Wood’s lawyer, who specializes in the state’s death row cases, says he has never seen a sentence of execution “in which there was no defense at all on the question of death worthiness.”

This is just one of many grounds for the clemency that four dozen evangelical leaders have recommended to avoid a gross injustice. The state parole board would have to make this recommendation, with the final decision by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not granted clemency in 19 executions.

The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is. The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared.

Source: The New York Times, Editorial Board, August 18, 2016
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