The Texas prosecutor who sought the death penalty almost 20 years ago against a man who never killed anyone has now asked that his sentence be reduced to life in prison.
Lucy Wilke, now the Kerr County district attorney, was the prosecutor in the 1998 murder trial of Jeff Wood — a man whose scheduled execution last year prompted lawmakers to question when the state should put accomplices to death. Although she originally decided to seek the death penalty for Wood, she later said in a letter to the prison parole board that “the penalty now appears to be excessive.”
Wilke asked the board to recommend Gov. Greg Abbott grant clemency and change Wood’s sentence to life in prison. The letter was sent in August, but The Texas Tribune received a copy from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Thursday after a Wednesday court order referred to it.
“While I am aware that requests for clemency in Death Penalty Capital Murder cases are normally considered when there is an execution date pending, I respectfully ask that you consider this request for commutation of sentence and act on it now, in the absence of such an execution date, in the interest of justice and judicial economy,” she wrote.
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The letter was co-signed by Kerrville Police Chief David Knight, who was an officer at the time of the murder, and the district judge who is handling Wood's current appeal, Keith Williams.
A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the letter, but the governor has not changed a death-sentenced individual’s sentence since he took office in 2015. A spokesman for the parole board did not say whether members have voted on the request.
Jeff Wood’s case gained national attention in August 2016, as his execution date neared. Wood, now 44, was convicted and sentenced to death in a 1996 Kerrville convenience store murder — he was sitting outside in the truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, pulled the trigger that killed clerk Kriss Keeran.
As an accomplice, he was sentenced under 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 killing. Wood’s attorneys claimed he didn’t go to the store with the intention of having Keeran killed and didn’t even know Reneau brought a gun. Prosecutors disputed that fact, saying Wood knew Reneau would kill Keeran if he didn't cooperate.
In the months before his scheduled death, Wood’s case drew the spotlight on Texas’ law of parties, and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers sought to stop the execution. Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, said more than 50 House members signed on to a letter he wrote asking Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to reduce Wood’s sentence.
In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to limit death sentences for those convicted under the law of parties.
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Six days before Wood's execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped it and sent the case back to the trial court in Kerr County to review his claim that a jury was improperly persuaded to hand down a death sentence because of testimony from a highly criticized psychiatrist nicknamed “Dr. Death.”
Wood’s lawyers claimed the psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, lied to jurors about how many cases he had testified in and how often he found a defendant would be a future danger. The lawyers claimed he almost always found they would be. A person can only be sentenced to death if a jury unanimously agrees that he or she would present a danger.
In her letter, Wilke cites the issues with Grigson's testimony as reason for requesting a change of sentence. She claims she was unaware at the time of the trial that he had been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians.
“Had I known about Dr. Grigson’s issues with said organizations, I would not have used him as the State’s expert witness in this case on the issue of future dangerousness,” she wrote.
Wilke said she wants clemency for Wood because of Grigson's testimony and other factors including: the fact that he wasn't the shooter, his documented history of low intelligence and his nonviolent history in and out of prison. She mentioned that three jurors have submitted affidavits saying they would not have agreed Wood presented a future danger if they'd been aware of Grigson's issues.
In April, the Kerr County court paused its review of the Grigson claims after Wood’s lawyers said they and the state’s lawyers were in discussions about a “possible settlement,” according to a Wednesday court order by the Court of Criminal Appeals. The order directed the trial court to resume its review regardless of the prosecution’s request to leadership that Wood’s sentence be changed.
If Wood's sentence is changed to life in prison, he would become eligible for parole 40 years after the crime — in 2036.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Jeff Wood was outside in a pickup when his partner killed a Kerrville convenience store clerk in 1996, but he was sentenced to death under Texas' felony murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties. [Full story]
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Jeff Wood — a man who never killed anyone — six days before he was set to die by lethal injection. [Full story]
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, a staunch conservative, worked to stop an upcoming execution of Jeff Wood, who was sentenced to death even though he killed no one. [Full story]