Many states, notably Texas and California, have a Felony Murder Law or “Law of Parties” which allows for someone to be sentenced to death even if they did not kill the victim, but only acted as a participant in the crime. This law works by mandating that if you were involved in committing a felony that resulted in death(s), you are equally as responsible for the loss of life as the person who committed the murder. While such a law may make sense in a murder-for-hire scenario, it is often used more loosely and controversially. Here are a few Texas cases:
Jeff Wood: Jeff Wood was outside in his car while his friend, Daniel Reneau, went in to a gas station where their friend Kriss Keeran worked. What is known is that Reneau murdered Keeran in order to steal the store’s safe, and Jeff Wood entered the store after the murder and helped his friend, willingly or unwillingly, cover up the crime and steal the safe. Even though he did not participate actively in murdering the man, he was held responsible as an accomplice to the robbery.
The Texas Tribune reported “According to Nadia Mireles, Wood’s then-girlfriend, Wood told Reneau to leave his gun at home the morning of the murder. She said Reneau put the gun down, but picked it back up when Wood left the room. Her testimony was not included in Wood’s trial, but it was in Reneau’s.
Prosecutors argued Wood knew Reneau would kill Keeran if he didn’t cooperate with the robbery. If true, that would make him guilty of capital murder under the law of parties, which states that a person can be charged with a crime he didn’t commit if he “should have anticipated it as a result” of another crime.”
Wood was granted a last minute stay of execution in August 2016 while a district court investigates legal issues with the punishment portion of his trial.
Kenneth Conrad Vodochodsky: In 1999 Kenneth bailed his best friend out of jail on a domestic assault charge and later went with him to buy a gun and ammunition. Given that this was rural Texas, buying guns with a friend was hardly indicative of a criminal conspiracy. However, this was enough for prosecutors to hold him legally responsible for the murder of three police officers, which he has always maintained he was not present during. Kenneth’s friend lured police to his house in a suicide-by-cop scheme and killed three police in an ambush and shootout before killing himself. Despite Kenneth’s claims he was not home during the incident and seeming lack of motive to participate in an ambush on police, local prosecutors wanted someone who was alive to pay for the crime, and prosecuted him as an alleged accomplice. His death sentence has since been vacated due to lack of evidence, and he is now finishing a 30-year sentence as part of a plea agreement.
The Texas Seven: After their infamous prison break in December of 2000, a robbery turned deadly for a police officer in Irving, Texas. All seven inmates involved in the escape were sentenced to death for the officer’s shooting, regardless of whether they were thought to have shot at the officer.
Kenneth Foster: Kenneth was sentenced to death because of his role as a getaway driver after a murder he claims he had no idea would take place. Foster was driving around several friends when one man exited a vehicle to speak with a woman, either with the intent to flirt with or to rob her, depending on whose story is believed. An altercation occurred when her male friend exited his house, and Kenneth’s friend shot the man and then returned to the car. The circumstances of the night and whether Kenneth Foster should have foreseen a murder taking place are debatable, but it was always clear that he did not shot the victim. He received a last minute commutation to a Life sentence before his execution date in 2007.