|The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas|
On Monday, a Republican state representative from Plano, an avowed conservative, will make a prison visit to see a death row inmate whose life he wants spared.
If it seems a departure from political orthodoxy, it isn't: It's a case of reason in the light of facts.
Rep. Jeff Leach, who has served on the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, says he is only one of a broader bipartisan legislative effort to re-examine Texas' "law of parties" as it is applied in death penalty cases. In brief terms, the law says that a co-defendant involved in a crime that results in a murder is just as responsible, even if that defendant was not involved in the actual killing.
Lawmakers have rallied around the case of death row prisoner Jeff Wood, who is by no means a sterling character but who even police and prosecutors agree never killed anyone. In 1996, Wood was sitting in a truck outside a Kerrville convenience store when his friend went in, robbed the safe, and killed the clerk.
Wood was sentenced to death under the law of parties, by which a jury decided he should have anticipated that the murder would take place. Wood claimed that he did not know his accomplice was armed or that a robbery was even planned.
The accomplice was executed for the clerk's murder in 2002. Wood has, to date, received 2 stays of execution, and those arguing his case claim that his sentence should be commuted to life in prison.
"I am a death penalty proponent," Leach said, in a make-no-mistake tone of voice. "Having said that, if there needs to be reform to the way we apply it, the Legislature ought not to be afraid to have those conversations."
To date, 10 people who did not commit the actual killings have been executed in the U.S. under "parties" or similar laws. Half of them have been in Texas. In some cases, the actual killer received a lesser sentence than the accomplice who was put to death.
Reforming the law of parties' application to capital cases, Leach said, would still leave laws intact to seek the death penalty for contract murders, organized crime, or cases such as the "Texas 7," in which all the defendants shared the intent to commit murder.
2 Democratic lawmakers - Terry Canales of Edinburg's HB 316 and Harold Dutton of Houston's HB 147 - are also seeking reform to the statute. Leach, who has not yet filed his bill but expects to work with Canales, said he expects broader bipartisan support. Prosecutors, district attorneys, and defense lawyers are also being included in the discussions, he said.
This measure is not about overturning the death penalty in Texas - which this board has advocated - but about fine-tuning the way it is used.
"If we're going to continue to use the death penalty in Texas," Leach says, "We need to use it only for the most heinous crimes."
Like residents across the country, Texans are divided over the death penalty. But all can agree that where it is imposed, it should be reserved, as Leach says, as the ultimate punishment for only the most dangerous offenders.
What you can do
Contact your legislator to register your support for HB 316, and urge lawmakers to ensure that co-defendants who did not kill are not eligible for the death penalty under the state's law of parties statute. To find out who represents you and how to contact them, go to www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx and type in your address.
Email forms are available on each lawmaker's website. Find them at www.house.state.tx.us/members and www.senate.state.tx.us/directory.php.
'Law of parties' executions
Texas executions carried out under the "law of parties" statute since 1985:
- Doyle Skillern: executed Jan. 16, 1985. Was waiting in a nearby car when his accomplice - who received a life sentence with parole eligibility - shot and killed an undercover narcotics officer.
- G.W. Green: executed Jan. 12, 1991. Participated in a robbery in which an accomplice shot and killed the homeowner. The shooter was also executed; a 3rd accomplice received a life sentence.
- Carlos Santana: executed April 23, 1993. Participated in an armored car robbery in which his accomplice murdered a security guard. The accomplice was also executed.
- Jesse Gutierrez: executed Sept. 16, 1994. Gutierrez was party to a robbery in which his brother killed the victim. The brother, Jose Gutierrez, was also executed.
- Robert Thompson: executed Jan. 19, 2009. During a Houston holdup, Thompson shot and injured a store clerk. As the robbers fled, Thompson's accomplice shot a 2nd clerk, who was killed. The accomplice received a life sentence. Gov. Rick Perry refused a recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles to commute Thompson's sentence to life, as well.
Source: Dallas Morning News, Editorial, February 9, 2017
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