Tag Archives: Capital punishment

Lucio deserves new trial

I cannot overstate the significance of the support that a woman condemned to die in Texas prison execution chamber is receiving from both sides of the great political divide in this state.

Melissa Lucio has received a stay of execution from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She was slated to die on Thursday for the death of her 2-year-old daughter 15 years ago.

I believe she deserves a new trial, given all the doubt about her conviction and the allegation that the state withheld evidence from her defense team.

What continues to amaze me is the support she is getting from tough-on-crime conservatives in the Legislature, led by Plano Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, who had the honor of telling Lucio this week about the CCA decision to forestall her execution. Lucio’s reaction was to sob uncontrollably.

Leach is a former member of the ultra-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus; he resigned from the caucus a while ago, citing some issues with the hardline positions it was taking. He still is a conservative, but he appears to be a man with an actual heart.

I applaud the leadership he is taking in fighting for Melissa Lucio.

I happen to oppose capital punishment, but you likely know that already. I also oppose the partisan divide that too often splits politicians along party lines even when the issue compels them to seek common ground.

One of those issues is seeking justice for a prison inmate who might have been convicted wrongly.


Pass the Pepto; this mystery causes serious heartburn

Some ongoing mysteries at times cause me to think hard about one of the principles I hold dear, which happens to be my opposition to capital punishment.

One of them involves the hideous mystery involving Lori Vallow, the mother of two youngsters who have been missing for months. Vallow and her husband Chad Daybell are suspected of harming her two children: JJ and Tylee, who’ve been missing since September. Vallow hasn’t disclosed where the kids could be. Nor has Daybell.

I do not believe this story is going to end well. Idaho police, where Vallow and Daybell lived, now report finding human remains on property they own … and that the remains appear to be those of children. Are they JJ and Tylee? A DNA exam of the remains will make that determination.

Vallow belongs to some sort of cult. Her prior husband has died, along with Daybell’s previous wife. Others close to the couple have met mysterious deaths.

This is bizarre, ghastly and hideous … all of the above.

And now this individual, Lori Vallow, might be responsible for the deaths of her children?

I hope you understand my angst. My opposition to capital punishment is steeped in what I consider to be a principle that government shouldn’t kill criminals, even those who commit terrible crimes. The last time I felt this kind of angst happened when the madman opened fire in the church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine worshipers in a race-related hate crime.

Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell do not deserve to walk among us. The good news is that they are not. Both of them are locked up. It’s where they need to be for as long as they draw breath.

However, I will not mourn their deaths if that is how the government decides to punish them.

Does capital punishment deter capital crime?

So, the federal government is restoring the death penalty for federal crimes. The Justice Department is bringing back this form of punishment that’s been on the shelf for two decades, through presidential administrations of both parties.

I have to ask: What crime will it deter? Where is the deterrence that this punishment is supposed to create? Do criminals really think of the punishment when they commit these heinous acts?

Capital punishment gives me considerable heartburn as I grapple with how I feel about it. I have declared my opposition to the death penalty as a punishment handed out by states and, now, the federal government.

We kill criminals at a break-neck pace in Texas, although the pace has slowed considerably in recent years. There once was a time when we were executing ’em with stunning regularity. There were tacky, crass jokes about setting up a “drive-through window” at the state’s execution chamber in Livingston.

Did the frequency of those executions stem the crime tide? Did it prevent killers from doing what they did to deserve the ultimate punishment? I fear not.

Which makes the DOJ’s decision to return the death penalty so problematic for me.

I don’t want to “coddle” these individuals. They should serve hard time. I do not oppose “administrative segregation,” which is a euphemism for “solitary confinement.” If they’re going to spend the rest of their lives in prison, make them pay deeply for the crime that put them behind bars.

I am acutely aware that life sentences don’t deter criminals, either.

The notion of deterring criminal acts requires a lot more thought and nuance than just killing the individuals who commit them.

Good riddance, John William King

This is one of those stories that occasionally makes me ponder and take stock of philosophies I usually hold close.

John William King is dead. As the saying goes in Texas . . . he needed killin’. The state of Texas executed this monster for a crime he committed 20 years ago, one of the most heinous hate crimes in recent history.

King was involved in the 1998 death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, a nice East Texas town just north of where I used to live and work in Beaumont. King and two accomplices — Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Berry — chained Byrd to the back of a pickup and dragged him through the Piney Woods, dismembering him.

Byrd was African-American; King and his evil partners were known to be skinheads/neo-Nazis/white “supremacists.”

I oppose capital punishment. I do not believe killing inmates who commit these crimes deters them from committing horrific crimes. John William King offers a brutal example of that fact, given that Texas has been the national leader in executing Death Row criminals.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this execution is that it occurred over the objections of the victim’s loved ones, who reportedly have forgiven the three monsters for what they did to James Byrd.

King is the second individual to be executed for Byrd’s brutal murder; the third individual — Berry — is serving a life term in prison and will not ever be released. Brewer was executed in 2011.

I oppose capital punishment, but I am glad that our good Earth has been rid of this hideous monster.

Wife-and-children killer heads for the slammer

Christopher Watts decided to plead guilty to killing his pregnant wife and two children to avoid the death penalty in Colorado.

He got his “wish” today when the judge sentenced him to life in prison. He’ll never breathe freely again.

This case tests severely my opposition to capital punishment. Watts is a hideous monster who feigned grief when the police began a search for his “missing” family.

But here’s what I suspect might happen to this individual. He well might meet the same fate that befell one Jeffrey Dahmer, who received a life sentence in Wisconsin after he was convicted of killing and cannibalizing his victims.

Wisconsin doesn’t execute capital criminals. It sends them to prison for life. In Dahmer’s case, the state sent him into the general prison population.

Then he got attacked by a fellow inmate, who beat him to death.

From what I have understood about prison convict hierarchy, those who are incarcerated establish a sort of caste system within the population. Cop killers, for example, are held in greater “esteem.” Those who prey on defenseless victims, such as rapists and those who murder their wives and children are considered the scummiest of the scum.

Welcome to prison, Christopher Watts. I would not be surprised in the least to learn that some inmate has delivered the same form of justice to this individual that the guy delivered to Jeffrey Dahmer all those years ago.

If such a fate falls on this individual, I just hope it hurts him. Badly.

Abbott takes the correct course with commutation

Thomas Whitaker is still alive.

He will remain so apparently for as long as his heart keeps ticking. He won’t be free, however. He will remain in prison for as long as draws breath.

Whitaker was supposed to die in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice death chamber this week. Then the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole recommended that his death sentence be commuted. It was a rare event by the parole board.

Then came the kicker: Gov. Greg Abbott could have rejected the recommendation. He didn’t. He accepted it and within minutes of Whitaker’s scheduled execution, Abbott commuted his sentence.

Whitaker is a bad dude. Make no mistake about that. He is not imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. He did conspire in 2003 to kill his mother and brother in Fort Bend County. However, the trigger men in the crime got lighter sentences than what Whitaker got initially. The man’s father argued for his life, even though his own wife and son had died in the heinous act.

“The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible,” Abbott said. “The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison.”

This decision is the correct one, to my mind, as a matter of principle. I oppose capital punishment. Accordingly, I am glad to see that Gov. Abbott has decided to stand by the Board of Pardons and Parole, even though he said he remains a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

However … Thomas Whitaker will suffer plenty while he spends the rest of his life behind bars.

Texas is shedding its ‘express lane’ execution process?

death chamber

Texans love to proclaim “We’re No. 1!”

Well, OK, maybe not all Texans. A lot of us do, though.

One area of particular pride has been in the number and rate of executions carried out on those convicted of capital crimes.

For the record, that notion makes me decidedly not proud of Texas.

Get a load of this: The state has gone 148 days without executing someone. That’s almost a record. Is this where I can cheer?


Pablo Vasquez was the most recent inmate to be executed. Despite the hiatus that has gone through the entire summer, though, Texas remains the hands-down leader among the states in executing capital criminals. We put ’em down more than the next top six states combined.

There’s even a joke about how the Texas death chamber in Livingston has an “express lane.”

This is not a source of pride for me.

I declared a couple of years ago that I oppose capital punishment. My opposition surely has been tested over the years. When I read about the nature of some of the crimes committed, I admit to feeling a twinge that tells me, “That guy needed killin’.”

Then I remember what I’ve known all along. Capital punishment does not deter the commission of capital crimes. People still murder other people knowing they face the ultimate consequence if they are convicted of the crime for which they are accused.

Yes, I also have heard the rejoinder: But that guy, the one they executed, isn’t going to kill anyone any longer. Therefore, it does deter murder.

It’s an argument with no end. I’ll just revert to the empirical data that show how capital crimes take place with the perpetrator knowing full well the consequences of that action.

And then you have the issue that arises from time to time about people convicted wrongly and how the state — I’ll admit it’s rare — has killed innocent people. I believe one such case is too many.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted several executions this year, which surprises some of us who have watched the CCA routinely deny defendants’ pleas for clemency.

I’m not hopeful that the slowdown in the rate of executions portends a potential end to the practice in Texas. I’ll accept this hiatus and hope it lasts a good while longer.

It’s not likely Texas’s execution rate will be overtaken any time soon by another state. I wouldn’t mind one bit ceding this dubious No. 1 distinction.

Texas capital punishment law needs reform

law of parties

Jeffrey Wood has become a poster boy … of a sort.

No, he won’t be showing up on a beefcake calendar. His name, though, could become part of an effort to provide significant improvements to Texas’s laws governing capital punishment.

This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Wood’s scheduled execution for a crime he didn’t commit. It sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether he was tried properly.

Beyond that, Wood’s case has brought to light a dubious provision in a state law that allows juries to convict someone of a capital crime — even if they don’t commit the actual act.

In 1996, Wood was sitting in a truck in Kerrville while his friend, Philip Reneau, was inside a convenience store committing a robbery. Reneau demanded the store clerk turn over the safe; when the clerk refused, Reneau shot him to death.

Meanwhile, Wood’s presence in the truck made him — under state law — culpable for the capital crime. They call it the “law of parties,” and it creates a form of criminal equality among those who commit these dastardly crimes.

The state executed Reneau in 2002. Wood’s turn was coming up. State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano — a staunch supporter of capital punishment — has asked Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Pardons and Parole Board to commute Wood’s sentence. He doesn’t think the death penalty in this case is right and just.

There ought to be a more permanent and comprehensive solution to this matter. The Texas Legislature ought to rewrite the law to separate the person who commits the crime from an individual who accompanies the individual.

The state argued at trial that Wood knew Reneau would kill the individual if he didn’t obtain the money. That knowledge made him equally responsible for the capital crime, prosecutors said.


In my quest for a perfect world, I would prefer that Texas not even have a death penalty statute. I know, though, that a majority of Texans support capital punishment. Indeed, the state has become the all-time champeen among all the states in executing those convicted of capital crimes.

If we’re going to continue killing criminals, though, the very least we can do is focus more sharply on those who actually commit the crimes.

Jeffrey Wood did not kill that store clerk. Philip Reneau did. Reneau paid the price as authorized under Texas law. Wood does not deserve to pay the same price.

Gov. Abbott should commute Wood’s sentence and spare his life.

Meanwhile, the governor — who’s also a former trial judge — ought to invite the Legislature to improve what looks to me to be a serious flaw in the state’s criminal penal code.

Get rid of the law of parties.

Court shows rare compassion, halts execution


Jeff Wood isn’t going to die in the Texas execution chamber — at least not yet — thanks to a ruling from the state’s highest criminal appellate court.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — which I guess you can call the Killin’ Court — has sent the case of Jeff Wood back to a lower court.

Wood was scheduled to die because he was in a pickup truck while his friend actually killed someone while committing a robbery. But under Texas law and a provision called the “law of parties,” Wood was deemed as guilty as the shooter for the capital crime.


It amazes me that the CCA would halt the execution. This is the same body of jurists that at times has shown a remarkable lack of compassion for capital criminals. Sure, the criminals are bad guys and there are those who contend they don’t deserve anything from the state.

A trial jury sentenced Wood to death for the murder that was actually committed by Daniel Reneau, who was executed in 2002, just six years after committing the crime.

Wood’s role in the crime and the sentence he received has drawn national attention. Wood also drew support from an unlikely source, a conservative Republican lawmaker — state Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano — who intervened on Wood’s behalf while asking his sentence is commuted to life in prison.

The law of parties is an unreasonable provision in Texas law that needs to be removed.

That’s a fight for another day in another venue — which would be the Texas Legislature.

As for Wood, he’s been given a chance to defend himself once again. It fascinates me in the extreme that it would be the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that has exhibited a healthy dose of fairness.



‘Law of parties’ may kill the wrong man


It’s called the “law of parties.”

The law means that in Texas someone who’s involved in any way with a capital crime — a murder — can be put to death if convicted even if he or she didn’t actually commit the crime.

I probably had heard of it, but I’d forgotten about it.

Jeff Wood is scheduled to die for a crime he technically never committed. He shouldn’t have to pay the ultimate price for his role in a 1996 murder. The actual gunman has been executed already.

Wood, though, has an most unlikely ally in the Texas Legislature. State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, has come to Wood’s defense, arguing that Gov. Greg Abbott should commute Wood’s death sentence to life in prison.

What’s interesting to me is that Leach is considered one of the Legislature’s more conservative members. He said he still believes in capital punishment, just not in this case.


I’m with Leach on this one.

Wood was driving a pickup in Kerrville when his friend, Daniel Reneau, went inside a gas station to steal a safe. The clerk inside would comply with Renau’s demands, so Reneau shot him to death.

He was convicted of capital murder and was put to death in 2002.

Now it’s Wood’s turn.

Prosecutors at the time of trial argued that Wood knew that Reneau would kill someone while committing the robbery, which made him culpable — under state law — to murder in accordance with the “law of parties” provision.

According to the Texas Tribune. Leach “believes in the death penalty under the law of parties in cases where the accomplice was clearly involved in the murder. But when he came across Wood’s case during his work for the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, it didn’t seem right.”

Wood surely should never have been in the vehicle while his friend was committing the terrible crime. He made a patently egregious decision. Should he pay for it, though, with his life?

I say “no.” He didn’t commit the actual crime of capital murder.

Rep. Leach is asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend a commutation. Gov. Abbott has the option of accepting or denying the recommendation.

I hope the governor can reach the same determination that one of his Republican colleagues has reached.