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Idaho DOC Can’t Stop Love; State Senator’s Ex-wife Weds Prisoner

Lance Conway Wood, 48, was described as “a strong-willed inmate” with an extensive “history of ‘crossing the line’” who “exploits the human weaknesses of prison staff,” according to a federal judge. Wood, however, undoubtedly views himself as a “lover” and not an “exploiter,” and his affections have not been limited to prison employees.

Wood has served most of his life sentences in Idaho prisons for the 1988 kidnapping, torture and slaying of an Utah college student. While incarcerated he has filed multiple federal civil rights actions against prison officials.

Wood’s relationship with Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC) guard Sandra de Martin was the subject of one of those lawsuits. Martin became a prison guard in 2001 and began working in Wood’s unit the following year. She had a “reputation for ... being overly friendly” with prisoners and quickly pursued Wood.

Eventually, a romantic relationship developed between them; they kissed and touched each other but did not have sexual contact, according to deposition testimony.

A few months into their relationship, Wood became upset when he heard rumors that Martin had married. He confronted her because “his religious beliefs did not permit him to engage in adultery.” She repeatedly denied the rumors and tried to distract Wood by touching him sexually on several occasions.

Wood attempted to end the relationship and asked another guard to convince Martin to stop pursuing him. Wood finally reported her, and he was transferred to a different facility the next day.

In 2004, Wood filed a federal lawsuit against prison officials because Martin had “perpetrated sexual acts on him without his consent.” The district court ruled that the consensual nature of their relationship defeated his claim, but as previously reported in PLN, on September 4, 2012 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that “the power dynamics between prisoners and guards make it difficult to discern consent from coercion.” See: Wood v. Beauclair, 692 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2012) [PLN, March 2014, p.54].

At some point in 2004, Wood was apparently involved with another prison employee named Susan Isaac, before falling in love with guard Cheryl Davis in 2006. Wood admitted to a prison chaplain that he was involved with Davis and she “was to be his ‘eternal’ wife, pursuant to his Latter-day Saints (LDS) beliefs.” Chapel attendance records indicated, however, that Wood “rarely attended LDS services” in 2006. See: Wood v. Yordy, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46610 (D. Id. 2012).

In late 2012, Renee Shereen McKenzie met Wood as a result of her involvement in prison reform efforts. Mrs. McKenzie was a paralegal employed by a law firm founded by her husband, Idaho state Senator Curt McKenzie, who was running for the state Supreme Court.

After the Ninth Circuit remanded Wood’s case involving his claims against Martin, a jury trial was scheduled for December 2012. About a month before the trial, Wood asked the district court to appoint Renee McKenzie as his legal assistant.

“Based upon Ms. McKenzie’s representation, and the Court’s hope that a legal assistant would make the trial run more smoothly,” federal judge B. Lynn Winmill granted Wood’s motion. The court ordered that Renee was not to act in any manner which would constitute the practice of law, since she was not an attorney and the McKenzie law firm was not representing Wood.

The case ultimately ended in a mistrial and Wood moved to have Renee appointed to act as his legal assistant for the retrial. “With some reservation due to Ms. Mc­Kenzie appearing to go beyond her role as a legal assistant during the first trial, the Court granted the motion, but once again admonished Ms. McKenzie that she could not act in any manner which would constitute the practice of law.”

When Renee started visiting Wood in prison, she identified herself as Renee McKenzie with the McKenzie Law Office. Prison officials “mistakenly assumed she was working on Wood’s case under the supervision of an attorney,” giving her “virtually unfettered” access to Wood from her November 2012 appointment as his legal assistant.

That came to an abrupt halt on February 5, 2013, when a guard opened and scanned a letter marked “LEGAL MAIL” that Wood had sent to Renee which was returned to the prison as undeliverable. Communications between Wood and Renee were not covered by attorney-client privilege because Renee wasn’t an attorney or agent of an attorney representing Wood.

The letter was clearly personal, leading the warden to conclude that Renee and Wood were engaged in an inappropriate relationship. Renee’s visiting privileges were suspended on February 7, 2013 pending an investigation. Seven days later – on Valentine’s Day – the court held a hearing regarding the letter and rescinded its order appointing Renee as Wood’s legal assistant.

During the three-day period from February 16 to 18, 2013, prison officials monitored 26 phone calls, totaling approximately 11 hours, between Wood and Renee. They then reviewed almost 100 hours of unmonitored calls between the pair from December 2012 until February 2013, when they mistakenly believed she was working under an attorney’s direction.

The investigation revealed that Renee had attempted to circumvent the monitoring of Wood’s calls by having them forwarded from the law firm’s phone number to her cell phone. She also “set up a P.O. Box to receive ‘legal mail’ from Wood, but Mr. McKenzie indicated that the P.O. Box was not associated with his firm.” That was the P.O. Box from which Wood’s personal letter was returned, initiating the investigation.

Prison officials concluded “that, at the very least, there was a strong infatuation between Wood and Ms. McKenzie, and that it would be dangerous for them to meet in isolation as they had been mistakenly allowed to do previously.” Renee later admitted that she and Wood had developed romantic feelings while working together.

“I’m not crazy. I was just lonely in a 20-year marriage,” she said. “I can’t help who I fall in love with.”

On April 8, 2013, the federal district court denied Wood’s motions for a contempt hearing and protective order to prevent prison officials from retaliating against, harassing and intimidating Renee, other witnesses and himself.

“Ms. McKenzie’s continued presence in this case must be resolved once and for all – it has become a side show taking up far too much time and far too many resources of the Court, counsel and the parties,” the district court wrote. “Ms. McKenzie has no more right to participate in this case than the average citizen on the street.... The evidence before the Court indicates that the relationship between Wood and Ms. McKenzie is not a professional one, and it has created a serious security risk for the prison.” See: Wood v. Martin, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52305 (D. Id 2013).

“Ms. McKenzie continues to push the envelope by contacting the Court’s staff via email or filing documents with the Court on her own behalf,” the district court added, noting her conduct “may also constitute the unauthorized practice of law.”

Those concerns ultimately prompted the Ada County prosecutor’s office to investigate whether criminal charges were warranted. Although prosecutors found Renee’s behavior “troubling,” they declined to file charges.

Wood settled his original 2004 lawsuit against the IDOC in April 2013, after the district court had ordered Renee to not provide any further legal assistance in that case. See: Wood v. Idaho DOC, U.S.D.C. (D. Id.), Case No. 3:04-cv-00099-BLW.

Several months later, Idaho prison officials transferred Wood to a state correctional facility in Oregon without his legal files. “It was literally out of the blue, and you always have transfer files when they move an inmate,” Renee said. Wood reportedly had no transfer file and she suspected he was moved due to his litigation.

By November 2013, Renee and Senator McKenzie – who said his wife was “duped” by Wood – were divorced. The divorce agreement required her to change her last name, so she changed it to Wood in anticipation of marrying her incarcerated “soul mate.” Oregon prisoners are not eligible to marry unless their fiancée is approved for “privileged” visiting status. Initially, however, IDOC officials prohibited Renee from visiting Wood at all. The couple was later approved for “basic” visiting (i.e., behind glass), which prevented them from holding hands or sharing a brief kiss and embrace, as allowed during privileged visiting.

“I have no criminal anything,” Renee said of her past record, adding that she believes Oregon officials are “pawns” who were given inaccurate and incomplete information by the IDOC in retaliation against her and Wood for their relationship.

“My personal reputation has been smeared over two illegally gotten letters that I never received, and IDOC continues to try and pressure me to stop helping Mr. Wood,” Renee stated.

“Why would a conservative, Christian, Republican Idahoan go to such great lengths to continue to assist an Idaho inmate with two life sentences with his federal case against IDOC?” she asked. “Because, for years, I have heard and seen first-hand the horrific retaliatory, illegal, and harassing stories from inmates, inmate families, and both current and past IDOC staff. What kind of person would I be if I just walked away from what I have personally witnessed and not try to help in any way that I can?”

Defying all odds, the couple married in early 2015. In March 2015 they filed a civil rights action against Idaho prison officials for retaliation, threats and harassment in response to their efforts to uncover corruption in the IDOC; the lawsuit claims that Wood was subjected to cell searches, falsely accused of involvement in an escape plot and improperly denied access to his legal materials. The case currently remains pending. See: Wood v. Panther, U.S.D.C. (D. Id.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00092-CWD.

Sources: Boise Guardian, Idaho Statesman, www.idahopress.com, www.spokesman.com

Related legal cases

Wood v. Panther

Wood v. Idaho DOC

Wood v. Martin

Wood v. Yordy

Wood v. Beauclair


 

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