Death sentence commuted in Texas 'law of parties' case

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The Independent US

A death-row prisoner in Texas who did not commit the murder for which he was sentenced but drove the getaway car, received an unusual last-minute reprieve yesterday when the state's Governor, Rick Perry, commuted his punishment to life imprisonment.

Kenneth Foster, a 30-year-old former gang member from San Antonio, was hours away from death by lethal injection when Governor Perry issued the first commutation of his seven-year tenure. His decision followed swiftly on the heels of a highly unusual recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has only voted for commutation three times in its history.

"After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster's sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment," Mr Perry said in a statement.

Foster's case attracted attention from rights groups and death penalty activists as he was not the triggerman who shot and killed Michael LaHood during a crime spree in which he took part in 1996. Instead, he was sentenced under Texas's "law of parties" which says anyone participating in a crime spree is as responsible for a murder as the person who carries it out.

Foster, 19 at the time, was driving a car containing four men who carried out a series of robberies on a hot summer night. At about 2am, one of his passengers, Mauriceo Brown, hopped out of the car and started an argument with LaHood, a 25-year-old law student, over LaHood's girlfriend. Brown killed LaHood while Foster sat at the wheel about 80 feet away.

Larry Cox, of Amnesty International, called the case a "new low for Texas", which has executed more prisoners than any other state since the death penalty was reintroduced in the 1970s. "In essence," Cox said earlier this week, "Kenneth Foster has been sentenced to death for leaving his crystal ball at home. There is no concrete evidence demonstrating that he could know a murder would be committed. Allowing his life to be taken is a shocking perversion of the law."

When George Bush was Governor of Texas, he commuted just one death sentence on the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. He approved 152 others. And the last time Governor Perry was given a recommendation to commute, in 1994, he went ahead and signed the death warrant of Kelsey Patterson, a paranoid schizophrenic.