Under the felony murder rule, also known as “law of the parties,” if a defendant is committing a felony and a killing occurs, the killing will be deemed a murder. This is regardless of whether there was any intent to murder. The justification for the felony murder rule is that the defendant had the requisite intent to commit the felony and thus should be liable for the natural consequences of his or her actions. Thus, his intent to commit the felony transfers automatically to the murder.
The Texas Penal Code defines applies felony murder when a person “commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.”
Texas felony murder is applicable to all parties involved in the felony, even if there was minimal participation. The law of the parties, in its literal sense, suggests that any party can be guilty of murder. Note that legal theorists refer to felony murder as a prosecutor’s best friend. However, the Jeff Wood case from the 1990s challenged the fairness of the Texas felony murder rule.
OnJanuary 2, 1996, JeffWood sat in a truck outside a Kerrville, Texas gas station while his friend, Daniel Reneau, entered the gas station to steal a safe. They believed the safe to be full of cash from the recent holiday season. Inside, Reneau demanded that the clerk comply with his demands or else. When the clerk did not comply with his demands, Reneau pulled out a gun and shot the clerk, killing him.
Reneau was sentenced to death and executed in 2002. Wood faces the death penaly under the felony murder rule due to his involvement as an accomplice to a felony, in this case theft, and that a murder ensued while committing the felony. This is despite Jeff Wood having minimal involvement in the crime and despite not having any intent to commit murder.
Over the years, there have been various stays in favor of not executing Wood. Some have been judicial and some have come from the executive. Wood also challenged the ruling on being unfit for trial due to psychological challenges.
Others dispute the facts presented. At trial, the prosecution stated that Wood was an accomplice to theft. Wood’s family and attorneys claim that the clerk and Wood backed out on January 1st. Presuming the narrative is as the prosecution claims, there are questions as to the fairness of the law of the parties.
One possible defense is theeighth amendment of the United States Constitution ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In this instance, being subject to the death penalty or life in prison is disproportionate to sitting in a truck while someone else uses excessive force and kills someone.
If you are facing murder or other serious charges, contact the law firm of Christopher Abel, a Dallas-area criminal defense lawyer.
(image courtesy of Adamantios)