Is it right to put an accomplice to death?
Twelve years ago Jeffery Lee Wood sat in a truck outside a convenience store in Kerrville, Texas. Inside, his partner and roommate, Daniel Reneau, shot and killed Kriss Keeran, a cashier on duty at the store that evening. The killing, both say, happened because the robbery did not go according to the original plan. Reneau was executed for his crime in 2003 and, unusually, Wood also faced the death penalty, although he did not enter the store until after Keeran had been slain and did not himself inflict harm on anyone.
Wood’s case raises a number of complicated issues involving punishment. His lawyers and family have long argued that he suffers from a learning disability and is highly open to suggestion, which they believe made him uniquely vulnerable to Reneau. They also claim that he suffers from delusions. The initial trial record bears these assertions out. The first jury to hear Wood’s case judged him incompetent to stand trial. He was sent to a mental hospital until a second jury reversed this decision and deemed him competent to stand trial. Still, his behavior in trial was odd and he tried unsuccessfully to represent himself and subsequently commanded his appointed counselors not to cross-examine any witnesses. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.
In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled definitively in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional for states to execute “mentally retarded” persons. The court has yet to hand down consistent rulings on the other issue at question in the Woods case—whether it is constitutional to execute someone who did not actually commit murder. As the Washington Post explains:
If the execution moves forward, Wood, 35, will become only the eighth person to be put to death as an accomplice since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. More than 1,100 people have been executed during this period. The executed accomplices do not include those who were put to death for hiring someone to commit murder.
The court has historically reversed course on this issue. It ruled in 1982 that imposing the death penalty on someone who did not actually commit a murder – or “intend that a killing take place” – constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In a 1987 case, however, the court said that, if someone was a “major participant” in the eventual crime, such an act could count as grounds for execution.
American sentencing practices reflect a preference for what is called ‘proportional justice.’ Not all offenders commit equivalent crimes, and we punish accordingly. We hand out citations for traffic offenses, throw people in jail for several months if they commit violent assault, send them to prison for years if they commit murder and, in some states, sentence them to death for what we consider especially heinous crimes (often involving multiple murders or some kind of sexual assault).
Proportional justice can be useful because it assuages some of our ethical and emotional anxieties. From the perspective of fairness, we tend to uphold the intuition that ‘the punishment should fit the crime.’ Historically, this has often meant a trend in favor of more ‘humane’ methods of punishment, which includes higher rates of incarceration (over use of the death penalty) and a more humane approach (by abandoning use of torture and hard labor during imprisonment and abandoning or phasing out more gruesome methods of execution including firing squad, the gallows, and decapitation).
But proportional justice surely also satisfies some of our emotional cravings. The bereaved families and friends of victims wish to ‘see justice done.’ Communities crave a cathartic measure to help move forward in the wake of a heinous offense. Punishment is therefore as much about doing right by victims as it is justly penalizing someone for crossing established legal and moral bounds of society.
This set of motivations is problematic for our general approach to justice. Influenced by the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, we have generally shied away from punishing people in order to achieve instrumental ends. That is, whatever our approach to punishment, we do not punish people for any reason other than to do justice by their crime. We therefore do not execute a thief to deter other thieves and we do not execute a murderer for the benefit of the victim’s family.
The challenge for proportional justice is therefore twofold. First, we must remove whatever other social benefits – emotional or otherwise – drive our assessment of just punishment. Second, we must constantly review our intuitions concerning the in-between cases. One example is drug offenders. Traditionally, those who consume drugs receive lighter sentences than those who sell and distribute them. But who is the worse offender? One camp says drug sellers are the cause of the problem and they prey on those vulnerable to the vice. Another camp says the drug users are the real criminals—it is their habit that establishes a market for criminal activity.
Jeffery Wood represents another tough case, as evidenced by the Supreme Court’s two conflicting views on the fundamental issue at hand. His presence and participation undoubtedly facilitated the commission of the crime, yet he clearly is no murderer. Irrespective of his fitness to stand trial, our quest to identify where mere complicity in a crime ends and outright contribution begins will likely outlive his case.