“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”
They could have walked away and lived not only with the grief of losing their only child but the nagging thought that flaws in a justice system left unchecked could have similar devastating effects on others.
So David and Julia Wood did indeed decide to do the right thing.
The Yardley couple went after a major deficiency in the otherwise strong Texas hit-and-run law which basically allowed a judicial blind eye to be turned to their son Philip’s hit-and-run death.
By pleading their case to the Lonestar State’s highest governing bodies, they displayed persistence and courage.
But most of all, they demonstrated the integrity which, in perhaps some small way, will make this world a better place.
Hopefully, future such incidents like the one which took place on March 2, 2014 – resulting in Philip’s demise – will be handled with much sterner punishment.
On June 21, 2017 a jury in Austin found Joseph Cantu guilty of failure to stop and render aid in the crash which ended the life of the former Pennington School and University of Texas standout track and cross country runner.
Court documents showed Cantu admitted to hitting Wood, 23, as he was walking across a highway at around 2 a.m. Parts of Cantu’s Chevrolet Malibu were found at the scene and were tracked back to him when he went to get his car repaired.
No one was prepared when a judge rendered a shockingly light sentence.
In 2019, five years after Philip’s death, David and Julia returned to Texas to seek a change in the system.
“We spent the first half of our year down in Austin, working to get the Texas hit-and-run law changed,’’ David said. “Our efforts in this regard were due to our dissatisfaction and disgust with the outcome of the punishment and sentencing phase of the trial of the driver of the vehicle that killed our son.’’
The sentence, to say the least, was laughable. Cantu received six years probation and only 12 days behind bars (which, it turns out, he never served due to the judge’s unwarranted leniency).
“Following the inexplicable decision by the judge (Brad Urrutia) not to give meaningful jail time to the driver, we decided to initiate the process of lobbying for what we saw as an essential change to the Texas law,’’ David said.
“We approached, and subsequently worked with, the Texas state legislature and the Texas District Attorneys Association, to include a minimum of 120 days required jail time for drivers convicted of hit and run in Texas in cases where a fatality is involved.’’
But, as always, the wheels of justice move slowly.
“We were very pleased and grateful when Texas state senator Kirk Watson, the former mayor of Austin, agreed to sponsor the bill adding required minimal jail time to the law,’’ David said. “Senator Watson reached out to representative Joe Moody, who agreed to initiate the legislative process by sponsoring the bill in the Texas House of Representatives.
“Our involvement in the legislative process included my testifying to the Texas House Corrections Committee, and subsequently the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. Ultimately, we were very grateful that the bill containing the amendment requiring 120 days of required jail time passed both houses of the Texas state legislature by overwhelming bipartisan majority – by 144 votes to 1 in the Texas House, and by 31 to 0 in the Senate. The bill was signed into law by Texas governor Greg Abbott on May 29, 2019.’’
David stated in a 2017 interview that prison time for the offender would not bring “closure’’ for the family in this tragic case. But at least now they might find some solace knowing a more just system is in place.
“While we realize that this change to the law will not remedy what we see as the miscarriage of justice in our son’s case, we were motivated by the knowledge that in the future some families might be spared some of the horrible ordeal we experienced,’’ David said.
“And that it will serve as a deterrent. We were told by one of the prosecutors on our son’s case that required material jail time will save lives in the future. Once word gets out to the public of tougher sentencing for this type of crime, it will act as a deterrent to people driving drunk and fleeing the scene of an accident.’’
Julia added: “While we served as the catalyst for this much needed change to the law, it would not have happened without the assistance and guidance of some very good people in the Texas state legislature and Rob Kepple of the Texas District Attorneys Association. We are also incredibly grateful to family and friends who supported us through the often difficult and sometimes frustrating legal and legislative processes.’’
David and Julia have founded the Philip R. Wood Foundation, which helps send local runners to summer camps for training and coaching. For several years, the location was the University of Texas. This year, several runners from Bensalem and La Salle high schools have attended a camp at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Proceeds from the Flying Pig 5K, organized by Pennington School and set for Aug. 7 at Rosedale Park in Pennington, go toward the foundation.
A number of high school cross country runners attend to see how their summer training is going.
For more information on the Flying Pig 5K, visit https://raceforum.com/flying pig. Race day registration opens at 5:30 p.m. The 5K starts at 7 p.m.
Saturday, July 27
Run for the Hill of It 5-Miler, Philadelphia. Contact www.runsignup.com
Wednesday, Aug. 7
Flying Pig 5K, 7 p.m., Pennington, N.J. Contact www.raceforum.com