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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…

Texas lawmakers aim to eliminate death penalty for convicts who didn't kill

The Walls Unit, Livingston, Texas
The Walls Unit, Livingston, Texas
Months after Jeff Wood narrowly and temporarily avoided execution for a murder he didn’t commit, his case has motivated Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to call for death penalty reform.

Wood, 43, was convicted in the 1996 murder of Kriss Keeran, who was fatally shot by Wood's friend in a Kerrville convenience store. Wood was sitting in a truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, went into the store to steal a safe and then pulled the trigger on Keeran, who worked there as a clerk.

Even though Wood didn't kill Keeran, he was convicted of murder and given the death penalty under the Texas statute known as the "law of parties," which holds that those involved in a crime resulting in death are equally responsible, even if they weren't directly involved in the actual killing.

He was scheduled to die last August, but, after a rally in front of Gov. Abbott’s mansion and uproar from a group of lawmakers, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed, or stopped, his execution six days before it happened, sending it back to the trial court to review claims of harmful testimony.

With the 2017 legislative session underway, at least two Democrats and a Republican in the Texas House are working to stop Texas counties from sentencing people to death under the law of parties, keeping people like Jeff Wood out of the execution chamber.

“We’ve got to start somewhere when it comes to reforming the death penalty, and there’s no better place to start than the law of parties,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, about his bill, House Bill 316, which would make those convicted of capital murder under the law of parties ineligible for a death sentence.

State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who has become heavily involved in Wood’s case, said he plans to file his own bill as well as work with Canales.

Leach said he never really took a great interest in the law of parties until Wood’s case came up, and then he immersed himself in it, fighting against Wood’s execution and even planning a trip to meet him in prison next month.

“I am strongly in support of us continuing to have the death penalty, but only for the most heinous crimes and offenders that we know actually committed crimes,” said Leach.

There are two pieces to Texas’ law of parties. The first puts criminal responsibility on those who help commit a crime, even if they aren’t directly involved — think of the getaway driver in a robbery. The second states that all parties are responsible for one felony that stems from another if the second could have been “anticipated.” So, in Wood’s case, he was participating in a robbery that turned into a murder, and the jury determined he could have “anticipated” the murder based on the robbery.

Click here to read the full article

Source: Star Telegram, Jolie McCullough, Feb. 1, 2017

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