Judge delays execution of inmate

August 21, 2008 2:36:01 PM PDT
A federal judge on Thursday delayed the execution of a condemned inmate so he can be tested to determine whether he's mentally competent to understand why he would be put to death. Jeffery Wood had been set to be executed Thursday for taking part in a 1996 robbery in the Texas Hill Country store in which a clerk was fatally shot.

But U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio granted a request by Wood's attorneys to delay his execution so they could hire a mental health expert to pursue their arguments that he is incompetent to be executed. Texas courts had previously refused similar appeals.

Wood's "motion presents non-frivolous arguments suggesting (he) currently lacks a rational understanding of the connection between his role in his offense and the punishment imposed upon him," Garcia wrote in his 20-page order.

While Garcia wrote that the evidence was far from compelling, there were enough facts to conclude Wood had made a "substantial threshold showing of insanity."

Garcia wrote that his decision was based on the state trial court's refusal to afford Wood fundamental due process protections mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision, which blocked the execution of a mentally ill Texas murderer because lower courts failed to consider whether he had a rational understanding of why he was to be killed.

"We applaud the (court) for upholding Jeff Wood's rudimentary due process right to have his competency evaluated," said Andrea Keilen, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a legal group also representing Wood.

The Texas Attorney General's Office, which argued Wood had failed to show he was incompetent to be executed, said in an e-mail statement, "Our attorneys are reviewing the order and will make a decision whether to appeal."

Wood would have been the ninth condemned prisoner put to death this year and the fifth this month in the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

Attorney Scott Sullivan said in a motion filed Tuesday that he met with Wood a month ago and Wood told him he believed the trial judge was corrupt but would accept a $100,000 bribe and then deport him to Norway where he could live with his wife. Sullivan said Wood also believed the government will pay him $50,000 a year once he's released and that he's willing to give that money to the judge.

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of prisoners determined to be mentally disabled, but that protection has not extended to those with mental illness.

Wood waited in a car outside a convenience store in Kerrville in January 1996 while his roommate fatally shot the clerk, Kriss Keeran, once in the face with a .22-caliber pistol.

Both men then robbed the store, taking more than $11,000 in cash and checks.

Evidence showed the pair had planned the robbery for a couple of weeks and unsuccessfully tried recruiting Keeran, 31, whom they knew, and another employee to stage a phony robbery at the Texaco gas station.

But Wood's lawyers said his mental illness allowed him to be easily manipulated by his partner and roommate, Daniel Reneau, who they called "the principal actor" in the pre-dawn shooting. Reneau was executed in 2002.

Wood, whose 35th birthday was Tuesday, was convicted under the Texas law of parties, which makes accomplices as liable as the actual killer in capital murder cases.

At first, Wood was found by a jury to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. After a brief stint at a state hospital, a second jury found him competent.

At his capital murder trial, he tried to fire his lawyers before the penalty phase. The trial judge denied the request but Wood's lawyers followed their client's wishes, called no witnesses and declined to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had refused to recommend that Gov. Rick Perry grant clemency to Wood, whose lawyers compared his case to another convicted Texas killer, Kenneth Foster. A year ago, Foster won a commutation from the parole board, Perry agreed and Foster now is serving a life sentence.

Foster also was condemned under the law of parties, although Perry's explanation for commuting Foster was that Foster and his co-defendant were tried together on capital murder charges for a slaying in San Antonio.

In Wood's case, he and Reneau were tried separately.

At least a half dozen other Texas inmates have been executed under the law of parties.

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