GOP pushback convinces court to halt Texas execution

This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows death row inmate Jeffery Wood. A Republican lawmaker in Texas says a bipartisan group of legislators will take the highly unusual step of urging the state to halt the execution of Wood, who didn't pull the trigger during a fatal 1996 robbery. Wood is scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday. He was convicted under a Texas law that makes a participant in a capital murder crime equally culpable, even though it was Wood's friend who shot a store clerk. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A court on Friday halted the execution of a Texas man who was scheduled to die for a fatal 1996 robbery in which he wasn’t the person who pulled the trigger.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled 7-2 to put Jeffery Wood’s execution on hold. Wood, 43, was scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday.

The case has drawn highly unusual opposition from Republican lawmakers. It has captured attention across the U.S. over his culpability in the shooting of a convenience store clerk, Wood’s mental competence and criticism surrounding his original trial.

In a two-page opinion, the appeals court ruled 7-2 that the death sentence was based on false testimony and false scientific evidence.

One Republican legislator had formally asked the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles to recommend commuting Wood’s death sentence, and Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach said he is collecting a bipartisan set of signatures for a similar letter to be sent this weekend.

The pleas from GOP lawmakers are striking in Texas, which has the nation’s busiest death penalty chamber.

Leach, who said he still supports capital punishment, is part of a Republican-controlled Legislature that has long made efforts by Democrats to abolish the death penalty a non-starter in Texas. But he says Wood doesn’t deserve to die.

Wood and his friend, Daniel Reneau, were convicted in the shooting death of a 31-year-old store clerk during a robbery in the Texas Hill Country. Wood waited in a car while Reneau shot the clerk in the face, but Wood was still convicted of capital murder under what’s known as the Texas law of parties, which makes a participant in a capital murder case equally culpable.

Leach, however, said that’s not what troubles him. He instead points to concerns about Wood’s mental competency and the handling of his trial. A federal judge halted the original execution date in 2008 so that Wood — who was once found to have been mentally incompetent to stand trial — could be tested to determine whether he understood why he would be put to death.

Tests showed Wood was competent, and courts have upheld those findings.

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One Republican legislator has already formally asked the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles to recommend commuting Wood’s death sentence, and Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach said he is collecting a bipartisan set of signatures for a similar letter to be sent this weekend.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott would ultimately decide whether Wood should be executed, even if the board recommended a reprieve.

An Abbott spokesman did not immediately return a message about the growing concerns raised within his own party.

“I realize that it may be unusual, it’s very rare, for a conservative law-and-order Republican to be calling for a death penalty to be commuted,” Leach said. “But it’s precisely because of those principles that I can’t just stand by quietly as the state prepares to execute Mr. Wood.”

The pleas from GOP lawmakers are striking in Texas, which has the nation’s busiest death penalty chamber. Wood would be the seventh inmate put to death this year.

Leach, who said he still supports capital punishment, is part of a Republican-controlled Legislature that has long made efforts by Democrats to abolish the death penalty a non-starter in Texas. But he says Wood doesn’t deserve to die.

Wood and his friend, Daniel Reneau, were convicted in the shooting death of a 31-year-old store clerk during a robbery in the Texas Hill Country. Wood waited in a car while Reneau shot the clerk in the face, but Wood was still convicted of capital murder under what’s known as the Texas law of parties, which makes a participant in a capital murder case equally culpable.

Leach, however, said that’s not what troubles him. He instead points to concerns about Wood’s mental competency and the handling of his trial. A federal judge halted the original execution date in 2008 so that Wood — who was once found to have been mentally incompetent to stand trial — could be tested to determine whether he understood why he would be put to death.

Tests showed Wood was competent, and courts have upheld those findings. Abbott was Texas’ attorney general during Wood’s appeals, and his office argued at the time that Wood had failed to show he was incompetent.

Republican state Rep. James White sent Abbott a letter dated Thursday arguing there was evidence not allowed at trial “that potentially would have proved that Mr. Wood was not involved in a conspiracy to murder.”

The last execution halted by a Texas governor was in 2007, when then-Gov. Rick Perry commuted the death sentence of a man also condemned under the law of parties — although Perry’s formal explanation was concerns over the man being tried with a co-defendant simultaneously, instead of separately.

Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton, who also sent the state parole board a letter urging a reprieve for Wood, said he didn’t know whether bipartisan concerns would be enough to give the parole board or Abbott pause.

“If they can sleep at night and with their conscience and face their God in response to this and let it go on, then I think they’ll be the ones who have to answer for it,” Dutton said.

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