An old murder case saw new light recently as Jeffrey Wood, one of the two convicted criminals in the case, got a stay of execution on Aug. 19, six days before he was to die by lethal injection.
Facts of case
Daniel Reneau allegedly planned to rob the Texaco convenience store at Sidney Baker and Interstate 10 in Kerrville after allegedly conspiring with his friend Jeffrey Wood and assistant store manager/clerk William Bunker and manager Kriss Keeran to get the highest “take” after the 1996 New Year’s holiday weekend.
Keeran allegedly backed out of the plan to steal the store’s safe, and in the course of the robbery on Jan. 2, 1996, Reneau shot and killed Keeran.
Court documents from prosecutor Lucy Wilkes, 216th District Attorney’s Office, say Wood was allegedly outside the store waiting in their vehicle to escape, and not inside the store.
Reneau and Wood were arrested. Wood was 21 at the time.
Reneau was tried and convicted of capital murder. He was executed in 2002 for his part in the crime.
Wood also was tried for capital murder under Texas’ felony murder statute, commonly known as “the law of parties” which says that anyone involved in a crime resulting in death is equally responsible, even if they weren’t directly involved in the actual killing.
Wood was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. His execution was scheduled on Aug. 24, 2016, but was stopped by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals six days before that.
The original trial court was the 216th District Court with Judge Stephen B. Ables presiding. The case started in Kerr County where the crime occurred, and was moved by change of venue to Bandera County, also part of the 216th judicial district.
Lucy (Cavazos) Wilke, a recent addition to the 216th DA office then, was prosecutor for DA Bruce Curry’s office; and Scott Monroe was Wood’s defense attorney.
Witnesses during Wood’s trial included the defendant, his family members, law enforcement officers including then-Kerr County Sheriff Frances Kaiser, and multiple doctors.
The medical witnesses included a controversial psychiatrist James Grigson (nicknamed by others “Dr. Death”) who testified Wood would continue to be a danger to the public and himself if he was instead sentenced to life without parole.
The convenience store robbery and murder occurred on Jan. 2, 1996.
Reneau and Wood were arrested and charged with murder.
Wood was arraigned in court for his part in the crime on Feb. 22, 1996.
Wood had a competency hearing in court on May 7, 1997; and that was followed by a competency trial on Oct. 8, 1997.
As a result of that competency trial, Wood was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to Vernon State Hospital for evaluation and treatment. But, according to court records, Wood was confined at Vernon only 15 days and then sent back to Kerr County.
A pre-trial hearing was held on Jan. 19, 1998, on his capital murder charge.
The “guilt or innocence” phase of his trial took three to four weeks starting in February 1998.
Wood was found guilty as charged, and the punishment phase took place on March 2, 1998.
Court records say the jury in Bandera County took about 65 minutes to answer questions posed by Ables and other court officers.
On March 2, 1998, Ables sentenced Wood to execution by lethal injection for his part in the Keeran murder, and ordered him taken to the appropriate state prison facility to await that end.
His execution had been scheduled for Aug. 24, 2016, according to court paperwork and news reports.
But on Aug. 19, 2016, after court proceedings with Wood’s present counsel Jared Tyler of Houston’s Tyler Law Firm, PLLC, at the state appeals level, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas in Austin stopped Wood’s execution.
Latest court decision
According to Criminal Appeals court paperwork, Wood’s appeals attorney asked for the stay of execution based on eight “claims for relief.”
The first was that Wood was incompetent to stand trial at sentencing; and Tyler listed more than a full page of explanation starting with mental health professionals recognizing “Wood’s susceptibility to losing contact with reality since childhood” and that a jury believed him to be incompetent to stand trial “because of his delusional and paranoid thinking.”
Family members testified he was evaluated by counselors and others early in public school and considered as having short attention span, hyperactivity and ADD, and being developmentally delayed to some degree. But he graduated from high school in San Antonio and was considered articulate and employable.
Claim Two was that his sentencing trial violated due process because the trial court was aware an enquiry into Wood’s competency was required and didn’t cause one to be held.
Claim Three was that the capital murder sentence was based on “false and misleading testimony in violation of due process,” psychiatrist Grigson’s testimony taken after he had been expelled from professional associations for other similar conduct.
Claim Four was that Wood’s conviction and sentence “was obtained in violation of due process because it was based on false scientific evidence.”
Claim Five said, “The eighth amendment categorically exempts applicant from punishment because his participation and culpability are too minimal to warrant the death penalty.”
Claim Six said, “Notwithstanding ‘Tison’s standard,’ the court should hold that evolving standards of decency now prohibit the execution of a person who neither killed nor intended to kill.”
According to trial transcripts, whether or not Wood understood someone could be killed in this crime, or helped plan the crime even if it included killing the store manager, was a matter of some debate.
Claim Seven asked the court to declare the state’s death penalty unconstitutional “because of its arbitrariness and inability to ensure that only the worst of the worst receive death sentences.”
Claim Eight said the “due process clause” requires the state to obtain a new verdict “because its prior verdict, which was predicated on a prediction of the future, no longer permits execution of the sentence due to the passage of time and materially changed circumstances.”
Wood is now 42 years old and has been on Death Row March 1998 to the present, more than 18 years.
According to court papers for the stay of execution, issued Aug. 19, 2016, the Criminal Appeals Court agreed with Claims Three and Four about false and misleading testimony and false scientific evidence from Grigson.
“Accordingly, we remand those two claims to the trial court for resolution. Applicant’s motion to stay his execution is granted pending resolution of this application.”
Additionally, a concurring opinion from one appeals court member says that the judge also should remand Claims Five through Seven for consideration, referring to Wood’s participation and moral culpability being too minimal to warrant the death penalty.
Wood’s family background
At the time of his arrest and trial, Wood had a father, older sister, three younger half-brothers and a stepmother of five years. His stepmother testified he was not capable of being a leader or planner, and called him “an eight-year-old in a man’s body.”
Also involved in the trial was Nadia J. Mireles Howell, who stated once that she was Wood’s ex-wife, but also said they never actually married though they had a child together. She also said Wood was never a violent person in her experience, but Reneau once threatened her and her daughter with a gun and said he’d kill them if they ever snitched on him.
Reneau had not been in Kerrville long, but had already committed other burglaries.
He and Wood had only been acquainted a short time. But at the time of the robbery and murder, they were living as a combined group with Mireles, the child and Mireles’ sister in a trailer within walking distance of the scene of the crime.