Texas governor commutes death sentence

Getaway driver's life spared hours before scheduled execution

August 31, 2007|By Miguel Bustillo | Miguel Bustillo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry spared the life of death row inmate Kenneth Foster Jr. yesterday, just hours before he was to be executed for a murder he did not personally commit.

Perry's decision to commute the death sentence of Foster, the getaway driver in a 1996 botched robbery that ended in a fatal shooting, came after the governor received a rare recommendation to do so from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

"After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendations 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," Perry said in a statement.

The Republican governor did not address the Texas law that allows an accomplice to be given the death penalty, but said: "I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the Legislature should examine." Foster was tried alongside Mauriceo Brown, the man who fatally shot 25-year-old law student Michael LaHood Jr. Brown was executed last year.

Foster's scheduled execution, which would have been Texas' 403rd since the state renewed capital punishment in 1982, became an international cause celebre for death penalty opponents, who cheered the governor's decision.

Foster's family, which had nervously awaited word of his fate outside the Huntsville prison where he was to be given a lethal injection, rejoiced.

"This was justice," said his grandfather, Lawrence Foster. "There was no alternative for a rational human being to do anything other than what he did."

But Perry's action angered some victims' rights advocates and LaHood's friends and relatives, who said that politics had trumped the will of a 12-member jury.

"We're surprised and extremely disappointed," said Nico LaHood, a criminal defense attorney. "This is not justice for the only real victim here, who was my brother. The bottom line is that I believe the governor folded due to political pressure."

He said Perry's position was inconsistent with his past actions and noted that the governor recently refused to commute the death sentence of Vincent Gutierrez, who was executed in March after being convicted in a joint trial for killing an Air Force captain in 1997.

Foster, now 30, was 19 at the time of the murder. He was driving a car with three other men who together embarked on a string of robberies through San Antonio. The men already had committed two robberies when they began following the car of a woman who was following LaHood to his family's home.

Foster stayed in the car while Brown approached LaHood, shooting him in the face during an attempted robbery. Foster maintained that he never knew that Brown was going to shoot LaHood, an account supported by the other men. But under Texas' "law of parties," which allows accomplices to be tried for capital murder, he was sentenced to death in 1997. Jurors concluded that Foster must have expected the killing but did nothing to stop it.

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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