Saturday, June 10, 2017

Unanswered questions about law-of-parties beyond death penalty

In our podcast the other day, Texas Defender Service Executive Director Amanda Marzullo estimated that 10 percent of death-row defendants were convicted under the law of parties, and discussed the absence of data about how often the law-of-parties doctrine is used in cases involving lesser punishments.

Besides the implications for lower level offenses, which Mandy ably discussed in the podcast, that estimate/observation raises another question to which she did not immediately have an answer: What is the proportion of law-of-parties cases among defendants accused of capital crimes who ended up sentenced, usually via plea bargain, to life without parole (LWOP)?

Grits has never been a fan of Texas' LWOP statute, having believed from the beginning that life with the possibility of parole after 40 years should have still been a possibility. (Most capital defendants are REALLY young.) But if it turns out that law-of-parties convictions happen at a higher rate than among death sentences, it could indicate weak cases are being overcharged and pled.

Certainly we also need to know more about the extent of law-of-parties convictions in non-capital cases - this is a serious shortcoming in the available data, which Mandy says can't be shown without reading trial transcripts. That means it can't be shown at all from the public record when there's a plea deal!

Law-of-parties convictions inherently deserve extra scrutiny, and not just in the capital context. After all, these are cases where defendant's direct culpability could not be proven but the punishment is the same as those for whom culpability is unquestionable.

This is an area which would benefit from an interim study by a legislative committee or advocacy group. But it's a big task. If law of parties cases are resulting in significant numbers of people being convicted who would not be if prosecutors had to prove all the elements of the crime they're accused of, that could be a large enough issue to affect population levels in the medium to long term. So there are reasons to reconsider these questions related to both equity and economy.


jdgalt said...

What is "the law of parties"? You've made it a category but this is the only post in the category.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Check out the podcast (transcribed) linked in the post. Ms. Marzullo did a great job explaining it there. It's basically when someone intended to collude in committing one crime which by law makes them responsible for crimes committed by conspirators. So if the boyfriend robs a gas station and kills the clerk, his girlfriend driving the car is equally guilty of murder under the law of parties. But it also applies to and is frequently used for, as Marzullo ably described, lower-level offenses, not just murder.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

For more law of parties background, see this NY Times story from a while back. I found older Grits posts mentioning the law of parties - there were a few, but not many - and added the label to them.

The reason it wasn't a focus before is I don't cover exclusively capital issues, typically, and that's how this has always come up. Moreover, in capital cases LOP cases are rare; most years there are zero death sentences based on them, some years there's one. Mandy's suggestion that it's also used commonly for lesser crimes now makes me think it's an issue that deserves more focused attention from a systemic perspective.

dudleysharp said...


Here is specific case, as well as the actual statute. The primary issue with the lop is that not all cases are so, obviously, culpable.

Jeff Wood: Robbery/murder and the law of parties
Dudley Sharp

The appellate courts have rejected, for very good reasons, 19 years of claims on behalf of Wood.

Many public claims in support of convicted criminals are false and were either not presented to the appellate courts or rejected by them.

In 2008, The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 7-0 against commutation of Wood's death sentence.

That denial is supported by the facts, now, as always.

" . . . (Jeff) Wood admitted in a statement to police that he knew Reneau was going to rob the gas station, that Reneau planned to bring a gun and might use it if (Kriss) Keeran didn't cooperate, according to court opinions." (1)


"Evidence showed the (Wood and Reneau) had planned the robbery for a couple of weeks and unsuccessfully tried recruiting Keeran (a "friend" of Wood and Reneau) and another employee to stage a phony robbery." (2)

Keeran knew both Wood and Reneau. The criminals failure to recruit Keeran into the robbery meant that they would have to murder Keeran if they decided to go through with it.

They did and even agreed to go back home to get a gun that would be less noisy.

"Wood told his brother, who was not implicated, to destroy the surveillance tape after watching it together, according to the San Antonio Express." (1)

They watched the tape of the robbery/murder, for "entertainment". Wood laughed.

Evidence showed Reneau entered the store before dawn on Jan. 2, 1996, and fatally shot Keeran once in the face with a .22-caliber pistol. Then joined by Wood, they robbed the store of more than $11,000 in cash and checks." " . . both fled with the store safe, a cash box and a video recorder containing a security tape showing the robbery and slaying. "(2)

"Lucy Wilke, the Kerr County assistant district attorney, who prosecuted Wood, described Wood after his 1998 trial as "not a dummy" and called the slaying "cold-blooded, premeditated."(2) "(She) called Wood "the mastermind of this senseless murder," (1)

For those that wrongly complain about the law of parties:

"What do you think is going to happen when a guy goes into a convenience store to rob it and he’s armed with a gun, and your job is to help him commit that crime?” said Mary Lou Leary, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. “It’s a very high-risk activity.”(3)

Don't commit an armed robbery when you know your going to have to murder the victim, your "friend", because he can identify you. Pretty clear.

The applicable section of the Texas Law of Parties:

"A person is criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another if acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, he solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense . . . ". (4)

Think Osama bin Laden, 7,000 miles away at the time of the murders of nearly 3000 innocents. Was he culpable enough to be subject to the death penalty? Of course. Think.

(1) "Texas Panel Won't Halt Execution of Accomplice", by Scott Michels, ABC News, Aug. 20, 2008

(2) "Death date nears for accomplice in Hill Country murder", by Michael Graczyk, By MICHAEL GRACZYK Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, Aug. 19, 2008, 4:41PM

(3) Should murder accomplices face execution? By John Gramlich,, August 13, 2008


Steven Michael Seys said...

I have met people convicted under the Texas LOP who would not have been indicted for any crime where there no LOP. Remember, conspiracy to commit a crime is still a separate offense. The lawyer who insinuated that coconspirators would get off free in misrepresenting the facts. What prosecutors like is that they can get a plea from the perpetrator, have him turn on the other, less convictable person, and build a strong enough case to win at trial.

Anonymous said...

The law of parties is not right. How can anyone read someone's mind. In a split second people can change their mind. My daughter is in prison because someone changed their mind and she was convinced of capital murder life without parole. No DNA evidence, no video or any thing that put her at the scene of the crime. She had never had any previous criminal record. She was in love and was caught up in a robbery that went very wrong. How many other people are sitting in prison because their mistake was they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person?

d said...

Thank you for posting about this @Grits. This is such an important issue. I've personally heard dozens of really horrific cases where LOP resulted in LWOP where no jury would have agreed to such severe sentencing. We need this data to start being tracked asap, and we need to figure out how to get information on the folks currently serving under LOP.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Lindsey. But Mandy Marzullo was really the one with the insights, I'm just popularizing them.

Soronel Haetir said...

I am all for the law of parties. It merely expands the umbrella covered by a conspiracy to all relevant conduct.

Note that it would not, for instance, haul in a getaway driver who thought the aim was simple shoplifting that then turned into a shoot-out. But if you are going to take part in armed robbery you should well be prepared for all the bad consequences that might follow.