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'Law of Parties' - Texas' Very Strange Rule

Kenneth Foster

Kenneth Foster Jr. was sat at the wheel of a car when a friend of his shot a man in the face at point blank range.

Jeffrey Lee Wood waited outside a Texaco gas station while his associate inside shot a clerk dead during a botched robbery.

Steven Michael Woods Jr. watched on as his criminal partner killed two men in a drug deal gone wrong.

Randy Halprin and Patrick Murphy Jr. broke out of jail with five other men, during which one of the other escaped inmates fired eleven bullets into a police officer.

Robert Lynn Pruett was just 15 years old when he watched his father stab his neighbour to death in his front yard.

None of these men took a life themselves. Yet all six of them were found guilty of Capital Murder and sentenced to death. Why did they all receive such incredibly harsh sentences? The answer lies in an extremely controversial and much-maligned ruling in the state of Texas known as ‘Law of Parties’.

At first glance it might look like the name of a dumb comedy movie set on a college campus about a group of frat boys drinking six-packs and trying to pick up cheerleaders. But there’s nothing fun or amusing about the Law of Parties. Unless you’ve got a really rather twisted sense of humour indeed. 

Codified under Section 7.01 of the Texas Penal Code, the law states that it is against the law to ‘cause or aid an innocent or non-responsible person to engage in criminal behavior or to intentionally promote or assist the commission of the offense, solicit, encourage, direct, aid, or attempt to aid another person to commit the crime.' Texans 'have a legal duty to prevent the commission of a crime and make a reasonable effort to prevent it.'

In capital cases in the state, someone may be convicted under the Law of Parties, but in order to be sentenced to death under it, the sentencing jury must find - beyond a reasonable doubt - that 'the defendant actually caused the death of the deceased or did not actually cause the death of the deceased but intended to kill the deceased or another or anticipated that a human life would be taken.'

While that legal jargon might not be the most impenetrable legalese you’ll ever stumble across, let’s run through it anyway. Basically, the principle is that to be guilty of a crime, you don’t need to have actually committed the crime. You need only to have helped the thing take place. Even just knowing it was about to happen and not trying to stop it is enough. Although it is worth mentioning that to be found guilty under the Law of Parties, you have to have been personally committing a connected felony at the time. It needs to be proved that during that act the accused should have reasonably assumed that a murder was possible but did nothing to prevent it from occurring.

Perhaps the most famous case of the Law of Parties in action comes with the first case we mentioned, that of Kenneth Foster Jr.’s. The opening episode of our new Death Row-focused series I am a Killer delves deeper into his case, looking into the limitations and dangers of the law. Foster was later taken off Death Row and given a life sentence instead. In fact, actual executions under the Law of Parties are extremely uncommon. Only three people have ever been given the lethal injection under the ruling, a figure of around 0.5% of all those killed by the state since the reintroduction of the death sentence some three and a half decades ago.

The law is more than a little contentious and for quite obvious reasons. It’s almost asking a person to be able to see into the future. It’s also equating and conflating conspiracy and assistance with out-and-out participation and premeditation. The lines of responsibility are extremely blurred, so it’s no big surprise that a good deal of Texans oppose the thing.

That said, a sizeable section of the population have no issue with the death sentence being metered out to convicts under the Law of Parties. The Lone Star state alone has executed 551 people since 1982. Texas isn’t a place particularly renowned for its forgiving nature towards criminals or its liberal political views. Ask the average Stetson-wearing man on the street and there’s a good chance he might well defend the Law of Parties. And, to be fair, there is some logic behind it. They may cite the case of Charles Manson to you. Or even Adolf Hitler. Both were undeniably responsible for many, many murders (Hitler quite a lot more...). Yet neither is believed to have ever personally taken a life. Should they have ‘got away with it’

It’s an interesting thought. But then Hitler and Manson had pretty clear intentions with regards to the taking of lives. How can anyone know for certain whether the getaway driver in a bungled hold-up ‘intended to kill the deceased or another or anticipated that a human life would be taken’? And we mean for absolute certain.

By Steve Charnock

Wednesday, 12 September, 2018 :17

Steve Charnock is a freelance writer who scribbles all sorts of things for all sorts of people, specialising in true crime and crime drama. He mainly writes features, reviews, blogs, articles and lists. But always forgets to write his mum a birthday card.

Twitter: @BloodyCharnock