Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted the execution of Jeff Wood — a man who never killed anyone — six days before he was set to die by lethal injection. The order was issued on his 43rd birthday.
The court issued a brief, two-page order Friday afternoon sending the case back to the original trial court so it can examine Wood's claim that a jury was improperly persuaded to sentence him to death by testimony from a highly criticized psychiatrist nicknamed “Dr. Death.” The order creates the possibility that Wood's death sentence could be thrown out, though not his conviction.
“The court did the right thing by staying Mr. Wood’s execution," Wood's attorney Jared Tyler said shortly after the order came down. "[He] is grateful for the opportunity to prove that his death sentence is unwarranted.”
Wood’s upcoming execution has gained national attention and highlighted Texas’ felony murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties, which holds that anyone involved in a crime resulting in death is equally responsible, even if they weren't directly involved in the actual killing. Recently, conservative state representatives have spoken out and written letters to the parole board in hopes of saving Wood’s life.
Wood was convicted in the 1996 murder of convenience store clerk Kriss Keeran in Kerrville, even though he was sitting outside in the truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, pulled the trigger.
During his sentencing trial, prosecutors brought in Dr. James Grigson, nicknamed “Dr. Death” because of how often he testified for the state in capital murder trials, to examine if Wood would be a future danger to society if he was given life without parole instead of death. A jury can only sentence someone to death if it unanimously agrees that person would present a danger.
In his recent appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Wood’s lawyers claimed Grigson lied to jurors about how many cases he had testified in and how often he found the defendant to pose a future danger. He also misled the jury by omitting the fact that he was ousted from the American Psychiatric Association, Wood's appeal claimed.
Throughout his career testifying in capital murder trials, the number of times Grigson claimed to have examined defendants for future dangerousness would change randomly and often drastically, the appeal states.
In the late 1980s, for example, Grigson testified in one trial that he had examined 180 to 182 cases, but seven months later, he claimed to have reviewed 156. And a year and a half later, the number jumped to ‘no fewer than 391,’ according to the appeal.
But no matter the raw number of cases, he always claimed he found about, or sometimes exactly, 40 percent of defendants to not be a future danger.
The order instructs the trial court to not only examine Grigson's truthfulness, but to consider Wood's argument that Grigson's opinion was based on junk science. Grigson did not examine Wood himself but based his projection of Wood's future dangerousness on a hypothetical person presented by the state. The practice was condemned by the American Psychiatric Association.
The appeal also claimed that Grigson misled the jury by omitting the fact that he was ousted from the association for reasons relating to how he reviewed capital murder defendants. In 1995, the association’s Board of Trustees voted to expel Grigson after an investigation revealed that his method of predicting future dangerousness in capital cases violated the association’s practice.
Three jurors from Wood’s trial have said they would have discounted Grigson’s testimony if they’d known of the expulsion, according to the appeal.
Wood's scheduled Aug. 24 execution was thrust into the national spotlight because of the rarity of executions under felony murder statutes. But conservative lawmakers in Texas, who believe in the death penalty under the law of parties, also lost sleep over the case.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, had been lobbying the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to change Wood’s sentence or issue a stay. Leach said he didn’t believe Wood was a part of the murder. He had collected signatures from more than 50 fellow House members on a letter asking that Wood's sentence be commuted to life.
Rep. James White, R-Woodville, wrote a letter to the board as well, asking for a change of sentence in order to “preserve the legitimacy of the Law of Parties.” And Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, wrote a similar opinion piece for The Texas Tribune.
Presiding Judge Sharon Keller and Judge Lawrence Meyers dissented on the court's ruling. Judge Elsa Alcala, though concurring with the court’s order, wrote her own opinion, claiming that the court should have sent back other claims to the trial court.
“I would also remand claims ... in which applicant alleges that his participation in the offense and his moral culpability are too minimal to warrant the death penalty, that evolving standards of decency now prohibit the execution of a person who was convicted as a party to a capital offense, and, more generally, that Texas's death-penalty scheme should be declared unconstitutional because it is arbitrary and fails to target the worst of the worst offenders,” Alcala said.
- Jeff Wood was outside in a pickup when his partner killed a Kerrville convenience store clerk during a robbery in 1996. But Wood was sentenced to death under Texas' felony murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties. His family and attorneys are now desperately trying to save him from an Aug. 24 execution date.
- State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, a staunch conservative, is trying to stop the upcoming execution of Jeff Wood, who was sentenced to death even though he killed no one. Leach is asking Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Wood's sentence to life.