A Texas prosecutor has a change of heart about the death penalty she argued for and won 20 years ago against a man who did not kill anyone. In a letter to the prison parole board asking for clemency, Lucy Wilke said that “the penalty now appears to be excessive.” The defendant in the case, Jeff Wood, was convicted and sentenced to death in a 1996 convenience store murder — he was sitting outside in the truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, pulled the trigger that killed clerk Kriss Keeran. As an accomplice, he was sentenced under Texas’ felony murder statute, which holds that anyone involved in a crime resulting in death is equally responsible, even if they weren’t directly involved in the killing.
Part of Wilke’s change of heart stems from psychiatric testimony she presented at trial to prove that Wood posed a future danger. To obtain a death penalty verdict under Texas law a jury has to unanimously agree that he or she would present such a danger. At the trial in 1998 Wilke put on the stand a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who was known as “Dr. Death” and almost always found defendants would be a future danger. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had previously stopped Wood’s execution last year and sent the case back to the trial court in Kerr County to review Wood’s claim that a jury was improperly persuaded to hand down a death sentence because of Grigson’s testimony. Wilke now says she was unaware at the time of the trial that Grigson had been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians: “Had I known about Dr. Grigson’s issues with said organizations, I would not have used him as the State’s expert witness in this case on the issue of future dangerousness,” she wrote.