Texas Man Who Didn't Kill May Be Executed
Jeff Wood Didn't Kill Kris Keeran, but He Is Set to Be Executed for Keeran's Death
Texas is scheduled to put a man to death this month even though he never killed anyone, in what would apparently be the first execution of its kind in more than a decade.
Jeff Wood was sentenced to death in 1998 for his role in the murder of Kris Keeran, a gas station attendant who was killed during a 1996 robbery.
But Wood did not kill Keeran. Danny Reneau, Wood's former roommate, was convicted of shooting Keeran between the eyes during the robbery Jan. 2, 1996. Reneau was executed in 2002.
Barring a commutation from the governor, Wood, 35, will be put to death Aug. 21.
Wood was the getaway driver while Reneau robbed the Kerrvill, Texas, gas station where Keeran worked. Reneau shot and killed Keeran after he refused to go along with a plan to fake a robbery and split the proceeds, according to court documents.
Wood, who told police Keeran was a friend, later admitted that he came into the store after hearing the gunshot that killed Keeran, court opinions in the case say. Wood then helped Reneau take the store VCR and surveillance tapes -- he claimed only after Reneau forced him to do so at gunpoint.
Wood was convicted under a Texas law known as the law of parties, which makes Wood equally responsible for crimes committed by his accomplices that "should have been anticipated" during the course of the robbery -- even if he did not commit the crimes.
Though most states have similar laws, often called felony murder statutes, they are rarely used in death penalty cases. The last execution under a similar law was in 1996, in Oklahoma, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There have been seven such executions, excluding murder-for-hire cases, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the center.
Texas' law of parties statute is also broader than similar laws in most other states, said Robert Owen, director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas Law School.
"It's terribly risky to allow the death penalty to be imposed where the jury has to draw inferences about what was in the defendant's mind," said Owen. "There are serious questions about whether a getaway driver who might have anticipated that a death would take place should be death penalty eligible."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a person may be executed for a murder he or she did not commit or intend to commit if they were a "major participant" in the crime or acted with "reckless indifference to the value of human life."
Wood's appeals have been rejected by Texas and federal courts, and he has appealed to the Texas Board of Pardons and Gov. Rick Perry for clemency. A spokeswoman for the Pardons Board declined to comment. It will review Wood's case Aug. 19 and make a recommendation to Perry.
One of the few death sentences Perry has commuted came last year in the case of Kenneth Foster, who was also sentenced to death for acting as a getaway driver during a robbery that ended in murder.
Prosecutors in Wood's trial and appeals did not return calls for comment. Kerr County Assistant District Attorney Lucy Wilke, in a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, called Wood "the mastermind of this senseless murder," noting that Wood told his brother to destroy the surveillance tape after watching it together, according to the San Antonio Express.
After initially denying involvement in the robbery, Wood admitted in a statement to police that he knew Reneau was going to rob the gas station, that Reneau planned to bring a gun and might use it if Keeran didn't cooperate, according to court opinions.
Wood's family says the statement was coerced and point to testimony from a witness at Reneau's trial who said that Wood didn't know Reneau was bringing a gun. That testimony was not admitted at Wood's trial, according to his clemency petition.
His wife and father say Wood, who was initially found mentally incompetent to stand trial, is eager to please and has trouble understanding information.
"He had a very strong need to be accepted," his wife, Kristin, said. "He very easily went along with whoever wanted to accept him. That's why he ended up in bad company."
"He didn't know how to process information the way other people do," said Wood's father, Daniel. "He didn't know how to plan, he didn't know how to put things together. He loved to fish, but he couldn't plan for freshwater versus saltwater. His solution was to bring everything."
A jury found Wood guilty after deliberating for about 90 minutes. During the penalty phase of the trial, during which defense lawyers try to persuade the jury to spare the defendant's life, Wood told his lawyers not to call any witnesses or cross-examine any prosecution witnesses.
His trial lawyer said he was morally opposed to Wood's decision, calling it "a gesture of suicide," court papers say. Wood's clemency petition, filed earlier this week, called the penalty portion of the trial "a complete breakdown of the adversarial process."
Wood's family has organized a small grass-roots campaign to persuade the governor to spare his life. "He was always compassionate and involved with making things easier for other people," Daniel Wood said of his son. "He wanted to be important."