Thursday, August 21, 2008

The law of parties

Abstract from "Accomplice in 1996 slaying gets execution delay" (The Houston Cronicle, 8/21/08)

At least three Texas death row inmates have been executed under the law of parties, which makes accomplices as liable as the actual killer in capital murder cases.

Carlos Santana, 40, executed in 1993 for the death of 29-year-old security guard Oliver Flores during a failed $1.1 million armored car heist in Houston. His co-defendant, James Meanes, the triggerman, was executed in 1998.

Joseph Starvaggi, 34, executed in 1987 for fatally shooting Montgomery County probation officer John Denson, 43, during a Magnolia home burglary. An accomplice, G.W. Green, 49, was executed in 1991; a third man, Glenn Martin, got life in prison.

Doyle Skillern, 49, was executed in 1985 for the murder of Department of Public Safety narcotics officer Patrick Allen Randel. Skillern claimed an accomplice, Charles Victor Sanne, was the gunman. Sanne got a life sentence.

(Source: Death Penalty Information Center and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site)

[...][Jeff] Wood's case has prompted protests by those who contend that the law of parties, and the punishment, are archaic.

"Put them together," said David Fathi, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, "and you have a situation that the rest of the world views with shock and incomprehension."

At least three other murder accomplices — as opposed to the actual killers — have been put to death through Texas' law of parties in recent years. The law has been part of the state penal code since at least 1879.

"It's a pretty traditional criminal law that accomplices and co-conspirators are equally held culpable," said University of Houston law professor Sandra Thompson, a criminal law specialist. "You don't have to specifically agree to commit a killing. You agree to commit the target crime. Then any other crimes that are foreseeable, you're responsible."

Role of accomplice

Supporters of the law, she said, suggest that the mere presence of an accomplice can embolden a criminal to kill. Under this theory, a crime might not have been committed without the presence of an accomplice to support the act.

University of Texas law professor Jordan Steiker, however, argued that the law's application to Wood "flies in the face of a broader effort to reserve the death penalty for extreme cases." [..]

The law of parties, derived from English common law, is on the books in 24 of 36 American death penalty states, but internationally, Fathi said, it is increasingly rare. England abolished it 51 years ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in law of parties cases from Florida and Arizona, has sent mixed signals.

In 1982, the court reversed the death sentence of Earl Enmund, the getaway driver in a Florida robbery that turned deadly. It noted that Enmund did not kill, attempt to kill or intend to kill or to facilitate a murder.

Five years later, the court held two Arizona brothers culpable in a quadruple homicide committed by their father and another man whom the brothers had armed and helped escape from prison. The brothers, the justices held, "could have anticipated the use of lethal force."[...]

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