On Texas's 'Law of Parties' or Accomplices as Killers

In 1998 a district attorney sent a teenager to life in prison for his role in a murder of a 16-year-old girl. In Texas Monthly, Pamela Colloff revisits the case and looks at why the DA is questioning the life sentence years later:

The DA did not pull any punches once The State of Texas v. Randy Lee Wood began. “You know what the defense really boils down to in this case?” he asked jurors. “They want you to say, ‘He testified against Josh Bagwell, he said he was sorry, he’s not such a bad guy—let him go.’ ” But his acts of contrition, Cole told them, were irrelevant. “This is not television,” he reminded them. “This is not something where we wake up the next morning and we can say, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’ and it goes away. It’s real. Heather Rich was a real sixteen-year-old girl, and he helped take her life. And no matter how bad he feels about that, he is still responsible for it.”

According to the law, Cole continued, it did not matter that Randy had not fired the gun or had not wished Heather dead. In Texas, the “law of parties” erases the distinction between killers and accomplices, finding that a person can be held criminally responsible for the conduct of another if he participated in the crime. By virtue of the fact that Randy had assisted Curtis, he was guilty of capital murder. “He could stand here all day long and tell you that his intent was not to assist in the commission of this crime, and his actions cry out differently,” Cole insisted. “He’s guilty. He must pay the consequences of his choice.”

The jury agreed, and on August 25, 1998, Randy was convicted of capital murder and handed an automatic life sentence. Cole watched as Randy, then nineteen, was led from the courtroom in handcuffs and leg irons. As the DA gathered the papers at his table, he was relieved that the trial was over. Yet he hardly felt triumphant. “It was not a moment of celebration,” Cole told me. “There was no joy or happiness. I had a deep, deep sense that another young life had been senselessly wasted.”

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Photo: Julian Frost