He was known as “Dr. Death” in Texas death penalty circles. Psychologist James Grigson testified in 167 capital trials across the state—most of which resulted in a death penalty verdict—before he was exposed as a charlatan, a perjurer, and a professional fraud that resulted in his expulsion from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians in 1995.
One of the cases Grigson testified in was a capital murder case in Kerr County, Texas. The facts of the case are not in dispute. Jeffery Lee Wood and Daniel Earl Reneau robbed a Texaco station/convenience store in Kerrville on January 2, 1996. Wood waited in a getaway vehicle outside the store while Reneau went inside armed with a .22 caliber pistol. When the store clerk did not respond to Reneau’s demand for money, the robber shot him, killing the clerk almost instantly.
Hearing the gunshot, Wood ran into the store where he found the clerk dead. He says that Reneau forced him at gunpoint to remove the store surveillance video and weapon while Reneau carried the store’s safe and cash box from the store to the truck.
Expert Offers Perjured Testimony
The two men were captured, tried and convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to death in March 1998. Dr. Grigson testified at Wood’s trial, embellishing his expert credentials to the jury about how many capital cases he had testified in and the number of cases in which he said the defendant posed a “future danger” of violence—an ingredient for the death penalty in Texas. At least three of the jurors who voted for the death penalty against Wood have since given affidavits to the Kerr County District Attorney’s Office saying they may not have voted for the death penalty had it not been for Grigson’s perjured testimony.
Law of Parties in Capital Death Penalty Cases
Wood was eligible for the death penalty under what is known in Texas as the “law of parties,” found in Section 7.02 of the state’s Penal Code. This law provides that if an accomplice “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense,” they are equally liable. The law of parties allowed the jury to sentence Wood to death even though he did not kill the young store clerk.
Reneau was executed in 2002.
Bipartisan Effort to Halt Execution
As Wood’s execution drew near in 2016, his case drew national attention as to whether it was fair to execute someone under the law of parties. The fairness issue and the national attention it garnered prompted staunch Republican conservative lawmaker Jeff Leach to lead a bipartisan effort of 50 lawmakers to get Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott to halt Wood’s execution.
DA Joins Calls for Commutation
Kerr County District Attorney Lucy Wilke had also became concerned about not only the fairness of the law of parties issue in Wood’s case but the role that Grigson’s perjured testimony had played in the jury’s decision to return a death sentence against Wood.
In 1998, Wilke was a young prosecutor working for then Kerr County District Attorney Bruce Curry who made the decision to seek the death penalty against Reneau and Wood. She did not know at the time that Dr. Grigson had been expelled from both the national and state professional associations for psychologists in 1995.
Today Wilke is district attorney for the 198th district in Kerr County. This past August she submitted a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s pardon board requesting that Wood’s death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment because “the penalty now appears to be unfair.”
“While I am aware that requests for clemency in Death Penalty Capital Murder cases are normally considered when there is an execution date pending,” Wilke wrote to the board, “I respectfully ask that you consider this request for commutation of sentence and act on it now, in the absence of such an execution date, in the interest of justice and judicial economy.”
Police Chief and District Judge Join Request
Wilke’s letter was co-signed by Kerrville Police Chief David Knight and District Court Judge Keith Williams.
Chief Knight co-signed the letter “in the interest of justice” while Judge Williams co-signed the letter in the “interest of … judicial economy.”
Judge Williams now has the Wood case under advisement because of the “false testimony and false scientific evidence” presented at Wood’s 1998 trial by Grigson. The judge is reviewing the case per a two page order by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued in August 2016 that halted Wood’s scheduled execution.
District Judge Should Grant Relief, Find Punishment Hearing Flawed
While we laud DA Wilke’s letter seeking a commutation of Wood’s death penalty to life imprisonment as a matter of fairness on the law of parties issue, the issue of whether Wood’s death sentence is constitutional currently rests with Judge Williams. An executive clemency plea based on “judicial economy” undermines the integrity of the judicial process. If Wood’s death penalty verdict was based, in whole or part, on the false, perjured testimony of Dr. Grigson—and the three affidavits from jurors seems to support this proposition—Judge Williams has a fundamental duty to address this issue himself, not pass the buck to the executive clemency process.
An executive clemency decision reducing Wood’s death sentence to life imprisonment would not cure the constitutional flaw in the punishment hearing that resulted in the death penalty verdict. Addressing this constitutional flaw belongs exclusively to the courts. The Court of Criminal Appeals apparently felt the same way in August 2016 when it instructed Judge Williams to address this issue.
Legislation Proposed to Address Law of Parties in Death Penalty Cases Fails
As for the law of parties issue in death penalty cases, the Texas Legislature once again this past year heard bills that would stop the execution of accomplices under specified circumstances like those in the Jeffery Wood case under the law of parties. This reform effort was once again led by Rep. Leach and two Democratic representatives, Harold Dutton and Terry Canales, but despite their best efforts, the reform measures died in the legislature.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, there have been ten people put to death in this country in non-contract killing case who did not kill anyone, and half of those executions took place in Texas under the law of parties rule.
Politicians Inconsistent, Arbitrary Issuing Commutations
Texas officials simply do not know how to deal with the inherent unfairness of the law of parties rule in death penalty cases. This was illustrated by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry who, in 2007, reduced the death sentence of a getaway driver to life imprisonment but in 2009 refused to commute the death sentence of a man under similar circumstances even after his own pardon board recommended that he do so.
If Jeffery Wood’s death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, he would become eligible for parole in 2036—some forty years after the crime occurred.
While Reneau did not respond to a request by Wood to write a letter exonerating him of shooting the store clerk, he did say before his death that he was the one who killed the clerk.
Justice Rests with Judge Keith Williams
It doesn’t appear likely that Jeffery Wood will experience the same fate as Reneau since Judge Williams appears to believe the sentencing and execution are unjust. The judge simply needs to put this case to rest, declare the death sentence unconstitutional, and resentence Wood to life imprisonment. DA Wilke will not appeal that decision, and the local police will not bemoan it.
Justice demands this course of action.