Friday, August 22, 2008

Judge Orders Competency Evaluation for Jeff Wood

Just hours before the execution of Jeff Wood was scheduled to take place, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio granted a request by Wood's attorneys to delay the execution so they could hire a mental health expert to pursue their arguments that he is incompetent to be executed. Texas courts had previously refused similar appeals.

Here are excerpts from the story that ran in the Houston Chronicle ("Accomplice in 1996 slaying gets execution delay," August 22, 2008):

"Wood's 'motion presents non-frivolous arguments suggesting (he) currently lacks a rational understanding of the connection between his role in his offense and the punishment imposed upon him,' Garcia wrote in his order.

While Garcia wrote that the evidence was far from compelling, there were enough facts to conclude Wood had made a 'substantial threshold showing of insanity.'

Garcia wrote that his decision was based on the state trial court's refusal to afford Wood fundamental due process protections mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision [in Panetti v. Quarterman], which blocked the execution of a mentally ill Texas death row inmate because lower courts failed to consider whether he had a rationa lunderstanding of why he was to be killed. (Ed. Note: Panetti has since been found competent to be executed though he does not have an execution date.)

Wood's attorneys say he suffers from paranoia and delusions, but the state does not recognize he suffers from mental illness. ..."


"Garcia appointed attorneys Scott Sullivan of San Antonio and Jared Tyler of Houston to represent Wood and a psychiatrist to work with them.

'We are relieved that we are going through the process whereby the court will determine if he is competent to be executed,' Sullivan said. 'It is a process that is dearly needed in this case.'

Sullivan said he will report the results of his client's psychiatric testing to the court early next year.

If the judge, after considering the psychiatric evaluation, finds Wood competent, he again will be scheduled for execution. If not, he will receive psychiatric care in a prison setting.

Sullivan acted as Wood's court-appointed attorney in an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Since the high court's rebuff, Wood, though indigent, has been without court-appointed counsel. A Kerrville state district court denied Wood's petition to obtain another court-appointed lawyer.

Sullivan said he has provided Wood free legal assistance as the execution date drew near.

In a terse parsing of legal procedures, Garcia noted that Wood, in his latest appeals, was granted neither a court-appointed lawyer nor expert assistance in establishing that he was not competent.

Instead, Garcia wrote, the state insisted Wood make a 'substantial showing of incompetency' before he was entitled to a court-designated lawyer or mental health expert.

'With all due respect,' the judge wrote, 'a system which requires an insane person to first make a 'substantial showing' of his own lack of mental capacity without the assistance of counsel or a mental health expert, in order to obtain such assistance is, by definition, an insane system.'

Garcia conceded that Wood's claim of incompetence 'is far from compelling,' but noted that 'petitioner's delusional thought processes convinced at least one jury he was incompetent to stand trial in May 1997.'

The judge noted that mental health experts who interviewed Wood during the period between his two trials found the killer's 'narcissistic tendencies and almost delusional belief in the inevitability of his ultimate vindication have grown more prominent.'

'Moreover,' the judge wrote, 'the petitioner exhibited a bizarre, seemingly paranoid, clearly suicidal ideation during his capital trial.' During thepunishment phase, Wood banned his attorneys from calling witnesses on his behalf.

Garcia wrote that Wood's petition for a stay 'at least arguably suggest(s) petitioner lacks a rational understanding of the causal link between his rolein his criminal offense and the reason he has been sentenced to death.'"

And here is the article that appeared in the New York Times ("Federal Judge, Chastising the Texas Courts, Orders a Stay of Execution," August 22, 2008):

"With only hours until his scheduled execution, a man won a stay Thursday when a federal judge granted him a hearing to determine whether he was mentally competent.

The condemned man, Jeffery Lee Wood, 35, was to be put to death Thursday evening for a killing committed by his partner in a 1996 robbery. But the execution was put off for at least six months by the decision of the judge, Orlando Luis Garcia of the Federal District Court in San Antonio, who suggested that he would hold the hearing next February or March.

The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, had yet to decide Thursday night whether he would appeal the decision, said a spokeswoman for his office, Lauri Saathoff.

Mr. Wood’s lawyers argue that he is too delusional to understand why he is to die and thinks that among other things he is the victim of a Freemason conspiracy.

Judge Garcia wrote that Mr. Wood’s bizarre statements at his trial and in prison 'at least arguably suggest the petitioner lacks a rational understanding of the causal link between his role in his criminal offense and the reason he has been sentenced to death.'

The judge said the Texas courts erred badly in the last week when they refused to hire mental health experts to determine whether Mr. Wood was mad or to appoint a lawyer to represent him at a competency hearing.

The United States Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to execute insane people who cannot understand why they are being put to death or that their execution is imminent.

Judge Garcia said lawyers for Mr. Wood had submitted enough evidence of a delusional state of mind to warrant a hearing on the matter, and he strongly chastised the state courts for denying Mr. Wood a lawyer and a psychologist to help make that claim.

Mr. Wood was caught in a Catch-22, the judge said. The state courts ruled that he had to show he was insane for them to appoint a lawyer and a psychologist to help him prove he was insane. That, the judge said, is 'an insane system.'

Mr. Wood has a very limited intellect and a history of emotional problems, learning disabilities and, in prison, suicide attempts.

'He will become delusional and deny the apparent reality right in front of him,' said one of his lawyers, J. Scott Sullivan. 'He has a delusion a bribewould solve this whole problem.'

Mr. Wood was arrested shortly after his partner in crime, Daniel Reneau, fatally shot a cashier during the robbery of a gas station 12 years ago. Mr. Wood was outside in a getaway car when the shot was fired by Mr. Reneau, who was executed in 2002.

Mr. Wood’s mental problems were severe enough that one jury found him incompetent to stand trial. After spending time in a mental hospital, he was found competent by a second jury. In 1998, he was convicted of murder under a Texas law that makes all who are involved in a felony, like robbery, subject to the death penalty if one of them commits murder in the course of it.

Evidence of Mr. Wood’s mental troubles was never brought before the jury that imposed the death penalty, largely because he became angry and told his lawyers to do nothing during the penalty phase, instructions with which they complied. In his ruling on Thursday, Judge Garcia said that this behavior by Mr. Wood was 'bizarre, seemingly paranoid and clearly suicidal.'"


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mikeb302000 said...

I sometimes write about the death penalty on my blog. Most of the commenters are rabid pro death penalty folks. Why is that?

Veronica said...

Regarding "rabid pro death penalty folks," see the film Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. Pro-death penalty, sure, but a interesting response to your question of "why"!

Rechtsanwalt said...

I think this is a good decision and court should check all the parameters before executing him and confirm whether he is suspected so or not. Let them complete their process and then take a decision to give a true justice.