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Why some Texas legislators want to limit the death penalty

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Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Austin, Texas, Feb 3, 2017 / 02:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- One death sentence in Texas has prompted some legislators to rethink the state’s broad qualifications for the death penalty. Jeff Wood, 43, was convicted for the 1996 murder of Kriss Keeran. Wood was sitting in a truck outside a convenience store in Kerrville, Texas when his friend Daniel Reneau entered the store to steal the safe. Reneau shot and killed Keeran, who was working there as a clerk.

Wood was convicted of murder under Texas' “law of parties” statute that says those who are responsible for a crime that results in death are equally responsible as the killer even if they did not directly commit the murder, the Texas Tribune reports. The convict was scheduled to be executed in August 2016, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution just six days before the event.

At the time, the Texas Catholic Conference said the stay “prevents a gross miscarriage of justice.” “The public outcry against this execution illustrates broad agreement on the injustice and basic unfairness of the Texas law of parties,” the conference said Aug. 19.

A trial court is reviewing Wood's case. State Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat, is sponsoring House Bill 316 to end death sentences for those convicted of capital murder under the law of parties. “We've got to start somewhere when it comes to reforming the death penalty, and there's no better place to start than the law of parties,” Rep. Canales said, according to the Texas Tribune.

Republican State Rep. Jeff Leach plans, a death penalty proponent, opposes using the law of parties to secure a death sentence. He was involved in Wood's case. “He may have suspected, he may have anticipated, but he didn't know,” Rep. Leach said. “You can't be executing people like that, you just can't. We can keep them in prison for life, but to execute them is an entirely different conversation.” For his part, Rep. Leach is backing Canales' proposal and is considering his own bill.

Another legislator, State Rep. Harold Dutton, advocates the abolition of the death penalty. However, he is also backing a more limited bill to modify the law of parties rule. His proposal, House Bill 147, would still allow death penalty sentences for those who help a killer commit murder, but not necessarily in other cases. Changes to state law would not be retroactive and would affect Wood's case.

Five people have been executed under Texas' “law of parties” statute. Five other states with similar laws have executed one person. In Texas' Walker County, a man named John Falk is accused of capital murder under the law of parties. In a 2007 prison escape in Huntsville, another inmate killed a guard during the escape. The trial is in the jury selection stage.

Texas is a leader in executions among U.S. states. Last year it executed seven people, behind only Georgia, the Death Penalty Information Center reports.

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