Thursday, August 21, 2008

Controversial Execution in Texas Set For This Evening

AFP has the following story about Jeff Wood, who is scheduled to be executed in Texas this evening, barring any last-minute intervention by Governor Rick Perry ("US to Execute Mentally Ill Man," August 21, 2008). Wood was convicted under the "law of parties," even though he was not involved in the shooting death of Kriss Keeran and in fact was standing outside the convenience store when the murder took place.

Wood's attorneys have questioned his mental competence and have argued that he suffers from longstanding emotional and psychiatric impairments for which he has never received treatment.

More information is available from
Texas Defender Service.

Here is the AFP article in full:

"Texas is scheduled today to execute a mentally ill man for conspiracy to murder in a case that death penalty opponents say illustrates why the practice is deeply flawed.

Jeffery Lee Wood, 35, 'has never taken a human life by his own hands,' and 'was outside the building in a car at the time of the murder,' his lawyers said in a statement.

Wood's partner in crime, Daniel Reneau, was executed in 2002 for killing a store manager during a robbery.

'At Reneau's trial, the prosecution had argued that Reneau was the person chiefly responsible for the crime and that Wood's role was secondary,' the Death Penalty Information Centre said.

'Wood was involved in the robbery in this case because of his longstanding mental illness that allowed him to be easily manipulated by the principal actor, Daniel Reneau,' his lawyers argued.

Texas is the top executioner in the United States, with 413 executions over the last 30 years, out of a national total of 1,119 for that period.

It is also one of the few US states that permit capital punishment in a case involving conspiracy to murder, not murder itself.

Seven people were executed for conspiracy after 1976, when the death penalty was reauthorised in the United States, but Wood will be the first to die since 1996.

'Executing someone who didn't kill violates the most basic principles of justice,' David Fathi, US program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

In right-leaning Texas, support for the death penalty and the state's tough 'law-and-order' approach remains high.

Advocates argue the punishment is just, deters crime and provides comfort to victims' families.

Ambiguity surrounding mental illness also makes Wood's case controversial.

Wood's lawyers asked the governor of Texas to delay Wood's execution by one month, after he had been in solitary confinement on Death Row for 10 years, 23 hours a day, to evaluate his mental health.

In 1986, the Supreme Court effectively banned executing anyone too mentally ill to understand what was to happen to them and why. But it did not establish criteria for evaluating mental competency.

'If a person is only mentally ill and not incompetent, the decisions are less clear and are up to individual judgments by the governor or the jury,' Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information centre, told AFP.

In March 2008, Richard Taylor, condemned to death for murdering a prison guard 27 years earlier when he was gravely afflicted with schizophrenia, had his death penalty commuted to life in prison in the southern state of Tennessee.

But Kelsey Patterson was executed in Texas in May 2004 despite having been diagnosed with paranoia and schizophrenia prior to his criminal act.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently authorised the state penal system to administer, by force if necessary, psychotropic medicine to two convicts on Death Row, to render them mentally competent and subject to execution.

The case of Raymond Riles, on death row since April 2, 1976 - more than 32 years - is emblematic of the ambiguity surrounding mentally ill inmates.

His execution was delayed three times, and after 1986 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice never set a new date for it. But he is still on Death Row."


Michael Labbe said...

You write that the Pennsylvania Supreme court recently passed legislation allowing the forced administration of psychotropic drugs to render an inmate competent for execution.

Can you cite this for me? I have searched the web for weeks and found no verification.

Thank you.

Kristin Houle said...

Hi Michael,

Here are links to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's opinions in the cases of Thavirak Sam and Herbert Watson regarding forced medication:

All best,