Federal Judge Sharply Criticizes Texas System in Ordering Stay of Execution

Jeff Wood’s execution was stayed with only hours remaining by U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio. The judge chastised the Texas courts for their refusal last week to hire mental health experts to determine whether Wood (pictured) was insane or appoint a lawyer to represent him for a competency hearing. The state courts had ruled that Wood had to show he was insane before they would appoint a lawyer and a psychologist to help prove he was insane. Judge Garcia's opinion said such a system is absurd, “With all due respect, a system that requires an insane person to first make ‘a substantial showing’ of his own lack of mental capacity without the assistance of counsel or a mental health expert, in order to obtain such assistance is, by definition, an insane system.”

In their appeal, Wood’s attorneys argued he is too delusional to understand why he is to die. Attorney Scott Sullivan said, “He will become delusional and deny the apparent reality right in front of him,” adding that Wood believes he is the victim of a Freemason conspiracy. In granting the stay, the court noted that Wood's bizarre statements at his trial and in prison, “at least arguably suggest the petitioner lacks a rational understanding of the casual link between his role in his criminal offense and the reason he has been sentenced to death.”

Wood’s mental heath was severe enough that one jury found him incompetent to stand trial, and it was only after spending time in a mental hospital that he was found competent by a second jury. Evidence of his delusions, emotional problems, and mental health difficulties were never brought before the jury that sentenced him to death because he instructed his lawyers not to present any evidence on his behalf. Judge Garcia said that such decision-making was, “bizarre, seemingly paranoid and clearly suicidal.” Wood’s case has received significant attention as he was sentenced to death under Texas' “law of parties.” His partner in a robbery shot a victim in a gas station while Wood was outside in a car. It is rare for anyone to be executed in the U.S. who was not directly involved in an actual murder.
(J. McKinley, “Federal judge, chastising the Texas courts, orders a stay of execution,” New York Times, August 22, 2008). See Mental Illness and Crimes Punishable by Death.