Jeffrey Lee Wood didn't kill anyone.
He didn't pull the trigger that ended store clerk Kriss Keeran's life during a botched robbery in 1996 in Kerrville, Texas. He didn't see the bullet that killed Keeran. He wasn't even in the same building. He was sitting in a getaway car, outside the gas station where Keeran worked.
Nevertheless, twenty years after a homeless drifter named Daniel Reneau shot Kriss Keeran to death, that state is preparing to execute Jeffrey Wood for Keeran's murder. And if that sounds strange to you, you're not alone.
The specifics of Wood's case are fairly straightforward. The Texas Tribune reports that Wood and Reneau planned to rob a Texaco gas station's safe, and conspired with both Keeran and a store manager to pull off the heist. On January 2nd, Wood and Reneau pulled up at the gas station. Reneau went inside while Wood sat in a pickup truck outside. While inside, Keeran reportedly backed out of whatever role he'd offered to play in the robbery, and was subsequently shot to death by Reneau. Upon hearing gunfire, Wood left the truck and helped Reneau remove surveillance footage from the store.
According to the Tribune, Wood was convicted under Texas' "Law of Parties," which effectively states that someone can be found liable for their involvement in a crime ("acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, [a person] solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense"), or for failing to prevent that crime from taking place, even if they are not the ones who actually commit it.
In court testimony quoted in a 2008 clemency petition filed on Wood's behalf, Wood's then-girlfriend claimed that he specifically asked Reneau to leave his gun at home the morning of the Keeran's murder, believing Reneau had done so as the duo left for the Texaco station. As Wood's lawyer explained to the Washington Post, his client could not have anticipated Keeran's death, and is being held unfairly responsible for the crime. Reneau himself was convicted of the murder and subsequently executed by Texas in 2002.
As it's written, the "law of parties" rule opens itself up to fairly liberal application, although it's rarely invoked when it comes to capital convictions; The Death Penalty Information Center reports that there have been 21 cases of executions stemming from it and similar rules since 1976. Eight of them have taken place in Texas.
Wood was originally scheduled to be executed in 2008, but his death was stayed by a federal district court in 2008. He has remained on death row ever since. But time is quickly running out. He now faces an August 24th execution date, and activists and allies are scrambling to prevent his death. His attorney, Jared Tyler, has filed to have his client re-sentenced in the hopes of receiving what he feels would be a more proportional punishment for Wood's involvement in Keeran's death.
Wood's case has long been held as a important example of the potential for overreach by states among death penalty opponents. In October of 2015, protesters caring banners with Wood's name and face marched against capital punishment outside of Texas' state capital.
In late July, supporters wearing shirts reading "Punish action. Not affiliation" held a rally outside Texas Governor Gregg Abbott's home. A clemency motion has been submitted to the state, arguing that "Jeffery Wood has never killed anybody, nor did he intend for anybody to be killed. His emotional and intellectual impairments rendered him vulnerable to manipulation and domination by others." (Wood reportedly has an I.Q. of 80).
Nearly 6,000 people have signed an online petition calling for clemency in his case, and 50 religious leaders have reportedly called on Gov. Abbott to prevent Wood's death. In a letter, the group states that, "as the getaway driver, Wood committed a crime, but not one deserving the death penalty. The death penalty, we are told, is reserved for the most egregious crimes."
Despite the efforts of his supporters and allies, it ultimately remains to be seen whether Wood will be spared a state-sanctioned death, or if his execution will go ahead as scheduled. Speaking with the Washington Post, Scott Cobb, head of the anti-death penalty group the Texas Moratorium Network explained that if the state proceeds with Wood's lethal injection, he will be "least culpable person executed in the modern era of death penalty."