It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

Dear Supporters,

In Texas, people can be convicted of murder and sentenced to death for crimes committed by other people. That’s possible under Texas’s incredibly harsh Law of Parties.

As we explained in our last email, Texas’s Law of Parties allows prosecutors to charge people with crimes committed by someone else as a “party”—even if they had no intent for the crime to be committed and didn’t know it was going to happen.

This law has led to some of the most cruel and senseless sentences imaginable—like Jeff Wood’s and Michael Highfill’s.

It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be. There is so much that prosecutors, the legislature, and courts can do to eliminate this cruel practice of sending people to prison for crimes they did not commit. To find out more, read below for part three of our explainer on Texas’s Law of Parties. (You can check out the explainer in its entirety on our Resources page.) 

With gratitude,

Burke Butler
Executive Director
Texas Defender Service

Texas’s Law of Parties, Explained

This is the final instalment of a three-part explainer on the problems with Texas’s Law of Parties—and what can be done about it.

By Kevin Trahan, TDS Staff Attorney

How to Fix the Law of Parties in Texas

There are myriad ways to address the injustices created by the law of parties, from death penalty cases on down. However, the most immediate and perhaps attainable changes can come from improvements in how prosecutors use their discretion. Prosecutors are never required to seek enhanced charges against a defendant under the law of parties; they can always charge individuals with offenses that align with their true level of culpability.

The legislature and the courts themselves can also address injustices that arise from the law of parties, particularly in death penalty cases. In the last legislative session, the Texas House passed a bill that would have changed the “anti-parties” statute in death penalty cases to allow jurors to impose a death sentence only if they believed 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.[1] It would no longer have allowed jurors to impose a death sentence if they believed the defendant only anticipated that a life would be taken. This would align Texas with the majority of American jurisdictions, which prohibit imposition of the death penalty against non-triggermen who lack an intent to kill.[2] The bill would also have changed the definition of conspirator liability in death penalty cases to more precisely track the language of the Enmund/Tison rule. However, the bill never received a vote in the Texas Senate. Texans can contact their legislators[3]—particularly their senators—and ask that they vote for similar bills in the future.

Finally, the courts in Texas have failed to uphold even the existing law—specifically the demand that individuals who do not kill cannot be sentenced to death unless they are major participants and act with a reckless disregard for human life. The courts must do a better job of policing the Enmund/Tison standard to ensure that disproportionate sentences do not stand. (For more on the Enmund/Tison standard, check out parts one and two of our Explainer on the Resources page of our website.)

The law of parties has created some of the worst injustices to come through the legal system in Texas, in both death penalty cases and non-death-penalty cases alike. The system needs to be changed to prevent disproportionate sentences. By improving the use of prosecutorial discretion, tweaking the law itself, and seeking better oversight from the courts, Texans can ensure that the law of parties no longer creates the unjust outcomes for which it has become known.

[1] Hayden Sparks, Texas House Initially Approves Bill Limiting Death Penalty in ‘Law of Parties’ Cases, The Texan (Apr. 20, 2023),

[2] See Joseph Trigilio & Tracy Casadio, Executing Those Who Do Not Kill: A Categorical Approach to Proportional Sentencing, 48 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1371. 1400–01 (2011).

[3] Who Represents Me?,,