Jeff Wood, a Texas man who was set to be put to death on Wednesday despite never actually having killed anyone, was granted a stay of execution on Friday.
In a per curium decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a portion of Wood’s habeas appeal pertaining to “his sentence [being] obtained in violation of due process because it was based on false testimony and false scientific evidence” satisfied the requirements to be reconsidered by a lower court. “Accordingly, we remand those two claims to the trial court for resolution,” the court wrote. “Applicant's motion to stay his execution is granted pending resolution of this application.”
The portion of the appeal that swayed the court related to the testimony of a controversial forensic psychiatrist named James Grigson and known as “Dr. Death.” Grigson testified that Wood would “most certainly” commit a violent crime again, but he never actually examined Wood.
“Three former jurors have said they feel the government’s presentation to them of a discredited psychiatrist who predicted with certainty, and without evaluating Mr. Wood, that Mr. Wood would be criminally violent in the future was unfair,” wrote Wood’s attorney Jared Tyler. “The psychiatrist had been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for the same unethical conduct as he engaged in Mr. Wood’s case.”
The other issue with Wood’s case, that the court of appeals did not ask that the trial court address, is the constitutionality of executing a man who had such minor involvement in a murder. Wood was essentially the getaway driver in an armed robbery gone wrong. He has claimed he didn’t know his accomplice was going to be armed and the Washington Post described him as “borderline mentally disabled with an IQ of 80.”
Cases where a person has been executed without having actually killed anyone themselves are incredibly rare: Only 10 executions out of more than 1,400 since the Supreme Court brought back the death penalty in 1976 involved people who did not directly kill anyone or hire someone to kill anyone.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala, in a concurring opinion, argued that the lower court should reconsider the constitutionality of Texas’ death penalty in light of the fact that Wood had not actually carried out the killing and was set to be executed for it anyways.
Alcala, a Republican and an appointee of former Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, argued that Wood did not meet the requirements for execution based on the landmark 1982 Supreme Court case Enmund v. Florida, nor the 1987 ruling Tison v. Arizona.
I write separately because I would also remand claims five, six, and seven, 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, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“Under its then-existing examination of jury decisions, the Supreme Court held that Enmund's death sentence ‘was impermissible under the Eighth Amendment,’ ” Alcala wrote, “because he ‘did not kill or intend to kill and thus his culpability is plainly different from that of the robbers who killed.’ "
Alcala acknowledged that in the later Tison ruling, the court gave states the right to execute individuals “who did not actually kill and lacked any specific intent to kill,” but argued that even under this standard Wood should not be executed.
“[Applicant] further alleges that, even under the standard set forth by Tison in 1987, his execution is impermissible in light of his minimal participation in the offense and his minimal moral culpability,” Alcala wrote. “Because the guilt-phase instructions permitted him to be found guilty of capital murder for a death that he may not have actually anticipated, applicant is correct that these instructions would have failed to comply with the requirement of Tison that the defendant exhibit at least reckless indifference to human life, coupled with major participation in a felony offense.”
Despite the court declining to rule that Wood’s involvement was minor enough to make his execution unconstitutional, his lawyer Tyler argued that this was in fact the case.
“The man who committed murder was executed in 2002,” Tyler said in a statement. “Justice is not served by executing Mr. Wood, who was outside the building when it happened and who had no criminal history.”
Correction, August 22: This post originally referred to James Grigson as a psychologist.