By Christopher Hill, State Strategies Coordinator, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, the main character is prosecuted and executed for an unnamed crime. We like to think that this kind of absurd surrealism only happens in literature. But something similarly absurd is occurring in the U.S. death penalty system.
Texas planned to execute Jeffery Wood tonight for murder even though he did not kill anyone nor did he intend that anyone be killed. He was not even in the building when the person he was convicted of killing was murdered. The fact that a judge has stayed his execution for last-minute assessment of his mental competency doesn't detract from the absurdity that he's still on death row.
Wood and Daniel Reneau drove to a convenience store which they had planned to rob. Reneau got out of the car by himself, walked into the store, and shot and killed Keeran. Reneau was executed for robbery and murder in 2002.
Wood was convicted under Texas’s Law of Parties. Under the Law of Parties, people can be executed even if they didn't kill anyone. This exists in other states as the felony murder rule.
Another surreal aspect to Wood’s case: In 2007, the Board of Pardons and Parole recommended to Texas Governor Rick Perry that he stay the execution of Kenneth Foster. Like Wood, Foster was also tried under the Law of Parties because he was the driver when a murder was committed. Also like Wood, Foster neither killed nor intended to kill. Governor Perry commuted Foster’s sentence stating that it was unfair that he was tried with the person who actually committed the murder.
In Wood’s case, however, the Board of Pardons and Parole inexplicably and unanimously voted against commutation. Thankfully, a court stepped to stop the execution and order a mental evaluation. This does not mean the process in not any less absurd. In fact, it proves the point. A jury once found Wood incompetent to stand trial in the first place. He was later found competent but he refused to allow his lawyers to put on a defense. He was hours from an execution just to get back to where he was when the court process began.
The Kafkaesque is not limited to Texas. A similarly bizarre execution just occurred in Mississippi. Dale Bishop was executed for a murder. Unlike Wood, he participated in the murder, but he was not the actual killer. What is surreal is that the actual killer is serving life in prison.
These cases provide further evidence that not only is the death penalty fraught with error and basic unfairness, but it is the height of absurdity.