Later this month, on August 24th, the state of Texas is slated to execute Jeffrey Lee Wood— despite the fact that he has never killed anyone. In fact, according to many accounts, Wood was not even aware that the man’s death for which he is being punished was going to occur.
And by all accounts, the execution of an individual who did not directly kill another individual is exceedingly rare.
Tragically, this comes almost a year after Pope Francis called for the abolition of the death penalty in his address to the United States Congress last September, where he praised the U.S. bishops for their efforts in this regard.
Continuing to further this cause, 16 bishops from the state of Texas have co-signed a letter to Governor Greg Abbott pleading that he issue a stay in the case.
“Mr. Wood has never taken a human life in his own hands,” the bishops write. “He was not even in the building at the time of the crime. It is extremely rare for any person in the history of the modern death penalty to have been executed with as little culpability and participation in the taking of a life as Mr. Wood.”
Now if you’re just hearing about this case for the first time, you may find yourself scratching your head and wondering how such a strange sentence come about in the first place. In short, it’s the result of an old and peculiar Texas law called the “Law of Parties,” where prosecutors are not required to prove that a defendant was a participant in committing the crime in question—or, for that matter, even intended to participate.
Wood was found guilty for waiting outside a convenience store while another man went inside and shot the clerk. Prosecutors charged that Wood and the other man were in cahoots, but Wood has insisted he didn’t know a crime would be committed and in fact insisted that his friend not bring a gun to the store.
The other man, Daniel Reneau, was executed in 2002.
If Wood’s case leaves you bewildered and questioning the aggressiveness in which the state of Texas has traditionally pursued capital punishment cases, then you’re in good company.
Yet despite the pleas of the Catholic bishops and other protests on Wood’s behalf, the state of Texas seems intent on pursuing even the most extreme of cases. Such a move not only puts the state at odds with Pope Francis, but also growing public opinion that continues to shift away from support of capital punishment, even in the most obvious cases of wrongdoing.
In recent years, television shows such as Making a Murderer, the hit podcast series Serial’s recounting of the case of Adnan Syed, and Michelle Alexander’s bestselling book The New Jim Crow have all contributed to a greater pubic awareness of the inequalities of our criminal justice system.
Yet alongside a growing distrust that our legal system can render justice, I would also like to hope we’re becoming more open to something that Pope Francis has been calling all Christians to practice with greater frequency: forgiveness.
Earlier this month in Assisi, Pope Francis made it clear that if we are to fully understand and participate in this Year of Mercy, then we must understand that it is linked to the practice of forgiveness. This requires further action than just ensuring innocent men aren’t falsely charged with crimes they didn’t commit—it requires a disposition of forgiveness toward guilty parties, as well.
“The world needs forgiveness; too many people are caught up in resentment and harbor hatred because they are incapable of forgiving,” he noted. “They ruin their own lives and the lives of those around them rather than finding the joy of serenity and peace.”
In that same address he went off script and added, “How truly difficult it is for us to pardon those who have done us wrong!”
He revisited this theme just last week during his surprise visit to 20 former prostitutes where he asked their forgiveness for the sins committed against them by Christians—and then he went a step further asking their forgiveness for not praying enough for them and others in similar situations.
As the penitential rite reminds us at the start of each Mass, we must ask forgiveness for the things we have done—and what we have failed to do.
As Wood’s terrible case in Texas serves to remind us, there are times in which the law of the land is flawed and often fails to facilitate justice. But as Pope Francis has continually called to our attention, there is a deeper law written into our hearts that demands that we first recognize our own grievous faults as a starting point towards forgiving others.
“Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” stated Pope Francis in his address to Congress.
Perhaps in this Year of Mercy, we can begin to pave the way for rehabilitation by recognizing that forgiveness is an essential part of building a Culture of Life, both in extending that mercy to those who have been convicted, and those of us who have been formally spared it as well.