Death sentences are usually reserved for particularly heinous killers. Jeff Wood is an exception. He didn’t kill anyone, but a Texas jury sentenced him to death in 1998. The death sentence may have been influenced by the testimony of an expert witness, known to lawyers and in the media as “Dr. Death,” who allegedly gave false and unethical testimony during Wood’s sentencing trial.
Jeff Wood’s Felony Murder Conviction
Wood was sitting in a truck outside a Kerrville convenience store while Daniel Reneau committed a robbery. Reneau shot and killed a store clerk. Under the felony murder law in Texas, a person who commits a felony is held responsible for a murder caused by any dangerous act committed in the course of the felony.
Under the Texas law of parties, when two people conspire to commit a felony and, while attempting to commit the felony, one of the conspirators commits another felony, the conspirator who did not commit that felony is responsible for it, despite having no intent to commit it, if the commission of that felony should have been anticipated. Wood maintained that he didn’t know Reneau was armed and had no reason to expect that a murder would be committed during the robbery. The prosecutor, however, claimed that “Wood knew Reneau would kill Keeran if he didn’t cooperate.”
The jury agreed with the prosecutor and found Wood guilty of felony murder because he conspired to commit the robbery that led to the murder. The prosecutor asked for a death sentence. The jury authorized a death sentence and the judge imposed it. Wood lost a number of appeals and post-conviction proceedings. He was scheduled to be executed in 2016.
Wood’s pending execution prompted a national outcry. Whether or not Wood was aware that the robbery might end in murder, Wood did not pull the trigger. Even some supporters of the death penalty consider it morally wrong to execute a defendant who did not personally cause the victim’s death. Some Texas legislators are trying to change Texas law so that death sentences are not imposed under the law of parties, but their efforts to date have been unsuccessful.
Dr. Death’s Role at Sentencing
While Wood’s challenges to his conviction have been unsuccessful, he recently persuaded an appellate court to stay his execution so that a new challenge to his death sentence could be considered. His primary challenge is based on sentencing testimony of Dr. James Grigson.
An appellate court in 1989 recognized that Dr. Grigson had earned the nickname “Dr. Death” because of the number of criminal trials in which he had testified in support of the death penalty. Without ever having met or interviewed the defendant, Dr. Grigson consistently testified in capital cases that the defendant “certainly” or “absolutely” would commit future acts of violence.
Wood’s habeas petition alleges:
- Grigson grossly exaggerated the number of capital murder defendants he had examined when he testified in Wood’s trial
- Grigson falsified the percentage of cases in which he claimed to have found the defendant to be “not dangerous” in order to enhance his credibility
- Grigson unethically told juries that he could predict with “100% certainty” that a defendant would be dangerous in the future, when no witness has the ability to predict the future with certainty (in fact, Grigson was expelled from professional organizations for giving that unethical testimony)
- Grigson falsely testified that he could make an accurate prediction of future dangerousness without examining the defendant, based on facts posed in a prosecutor’s hypothetical question, after he had been expelled from a professional organization for doing just that
- When he told Wood’s jury about his credentials, he failed to disclose that he had been expelled from professional organizations for giving testimony similar to the testimony he planned to give in Wood’s trial
Wood’s habeas petition also quotes jurors who were angered to learn that the prosecution called Grigson as a witness without disclosing his expulsion from professional organizations. Those jurors no longer believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for Wood.
Jeff Wood’s Future
As a result of the appellate court’s decision, Wood’s case will be returned to the trial court for a hearing to determine whether Grigson’s expert testimony was false or misleading, and if so, whether it affected the death sentence. If Wood loses that hearing, he will be entitled to appeal. His execution, once days away, will not occur any time soon. There is good reason to believe that it will never occur, given public opposition to imposing the ultimate penalty upon a defendant who played a minor role in the robbery that led to the victim’s death.
In the meantime, Wood’s mental health, which wasn’t good at the time of his trial, has continued to deteriorate. Wood was delusional at the time of his sentencing hearing and instructed his lawyers not to defend him, a fact that gave the Texas judicial system no pause in its zeal to execute defendants.
Wood’s lawyers have petitioned the governor for clemency. Gov. Greg Abbott has never changed a death sentence, but Wood’s case is unusual. His request to commute his death sentence to a life sentence has the support of the district attorney who prosecuted his case, the district judge who is hearing his case now, and the Kerrville chief of police.
In a letter to the governor, District Attorney Lucy Wilke stated she would not have used Grigson as an expert witness if she had known about his expulsion from professional organizations. She also cited Wood’s low intelligence, his history of nonviolence in and out of prison, and the fact that he didn’t shoot anyone. Wilke knew that Wood wasn’t the shooter when she asked the jury to sentence him to death, but she has apparently had a change of heart in the intervening twenty years.
Regardless of the outcome, Wood’s case is another reminder that defense lawyers need to pay particular attention to the credentials of prosecution experts. Wood’s lawyers may have been hampered by the instruction not to defend their client, but if they had attempted to verify Grigson’s credentials, they could have notified the prosecutor of his expulsions, which would probably have convinced the prosecutor not to call Grigson as a witness against Wood.