HOUSTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday spared the life of death row inmate Kenneth Foster Jr. 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 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 actually murdered 25-year-old law student Michael LaHood Jr. and was executed last year.
Foster's scheduled execution Thursday, 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, Texas, prison where he was to be given a lethal injection, rejoiced.
"This was justice," said Foster's 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," Nico LaHood, a criminal defense attorney, said. "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."
LaHood said Perry's position was inconsistent with his past actions. He 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 LaHood's slaying. He was driving a car with three other men who together embarked on a robbery spree 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 about 80 feet away in the face during an attempted robbery. Foster maintained he never knew that Brown was going to shoot LaHood, an account supported by the other men. But under Texas' controversial "law of parties," which allows accomplices to be tried for capital murder, he was sentenced to death in 1997. Jurors concluded that LaHood must have expected the killing but did nothing to stop it.
In California and most other states, accomplices in circumstances similar to Foster's would not be subject to the death penalty. In Texas, there have been at least a dozen cases in which accomplices were sentenced to die, said Keith S. Hampton, Foster's attorney.
Using the Internet, Foster's supporters launched a campaign that garnered sympathy from all over the world -- especially in Europe. Newspaper editorials in Italy and France condemned Texas for barbarism.
Helping lead the effort was Tasha Foster, 23, a native of the Netherlands who married the death row inmate three months ago. An amateur hip-hop artist who performs under the stage name Jav'Lin, she produced a rap video about Foster, "Walk With Me," that has been viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube.
Tasha Foster said she was just leaving the Huntsville prison after telling her husband about the state board's recommendation when news broke that the governor had commuted his sentence.
Crying, she said, she rushed back to tell him but learned that he had already been informed by the warden.
She said her husband, who has written two books of poetry during his incarceration, planned to devote the rest of his life to helping other death row inmates stave off the executioner.
"We want to try and slow down the Texas killing machine," she said, "because we know how much this hurts."