Kate Morris

Texas - where you can still be given the death penalty even if you didn't kill anyone

on 19 September 2011


“In the state of Texas, if you come into our state, and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you are involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas – and that is, you will be executed.”

These were the words of Texas Governor Rick Perry at last week’s Republican presidential debate – words which were met with applause from an audience clearly impressed by his rhetorical grandeur.

But – even if you accept Perry’s retributive logic – what if you hadn’t killed anyone? What if you had been present at a murder, and the guy you were with actually admitted to pulling the trigger? And the same guy, who pleaded guilty to personally shooting the two victims, was given a life sentence? Bizarrely, you can still be sentenced to death – as was the case with Steven Woods, whose execution last week marked the 235th authorized by Governor Perry.

What Perry failed to mention in his response to the debate moderator was that in Texas, under something called the ‘Law of Parties’, you can still be given the death penalty even if you didn’t kill anyone. This law, contained within the state’s Penal Code, allows Texas to execute people who never pulled the trigger and who might have been only peripherally involved in the crime. This was how Steven Woods was landed with a death sentence. He was convicted for murder despite the fact that his co-defendant, Marcus Rhodes, pleaded guilty to personally shooting the two victims. Steven was present at the scene, but he was never accused of being the shooter. Yet Rhodes escaped with a life sentence and Steven was executed.

The US Supreme Court has previously held that imposing the death penalty on someone who did not ‘himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill’ violates the US Constitution – specifically, the due process clause and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Yet Texas makes use of a subsequent exception for those who had ‘major personal involvement’ and displayed a ‘reckless indifference to human life’ to ensure that someone can be held criminally responsible for the acts of another. This law makes a mockery of the claim, often put forward by proponents of capital punishment, that the death penalty is reserved for the worst criminals and the most heinous crimes.

Interestingly, the only death penalty sentence that Rick Perry has ever commuted (save for a number of cases in which he was required to grant clemency by judicial rulings) was that of Kenneth Foster in 2007, who was convicted under the Law of Parties and sentenced to death for being the getaway driver in a fatal robbery. Perry urged the Texas legislature to look into the Law of Parties at the time, but it still hasn’t been reformed – and now Steven Woods has paid with his life for a crime everyone accepts he didn’t commit. As he said in his last words: “You're not about to witness an execution. You are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed anybody, never. Justice has let me down. Somebody completely screwed this up.”

What’s more, Steven was on the brink of receiving diplomatic assistance from the Armenian Government, on the basis that he was entitled to Armenian citizenship. The country’s Ministry of Justice sent Perry a letter asking for a thirty-day stay of execution, arguing that they needed time to recognise his nationality and provide him with the consular assistance he was entitled to under international law. Perry ignored their plea for clemency, just as he infamously snubbed the clemency pleas of the Mexican Government in the case of Mexican national Humberto Leal Garcia in July.

At the Republican presidential debate last week, the moderator asked Perry whether he struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any of those people could have been innocent. Perry replied, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.  The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place.” Unfortunately, the sad litany of executions that Perry has presided over has shown time and again that this is far from the case. With three more highly controversial executions scheduled in Texas over the next seven days, it remains to be seen whether Perry will continue with his unabated disregard for due process and the rule of law. One thing is for sure: although Rick Perry might not have a problem sleeping at night, the thought we are potentially witnessing the governing style of a future president sure makes it hard for the rest of us.

We’re all over the web

Support us on these sites…