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2002: Napoleon Beazley, who threw it all away

May 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2002, Napoleon Beazley was executed by lethal injection in Texas.

A high school class president and football hero, Beazley was 3 ½ months shy of his 18th birthday when he made the first entry on his criminal record.

It was a doozy:

Beazley (with two accomplices who later testified against him) shot a Tyler, Texas, couple in their garage to steal their Mercedes Benz.

The wife survived the attack by playing dead.

The husband was not so lucky. He was businessman John Luttig, the father of archconservative federal judge J. Michael Luttig. When Beazley’s appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court, a third of its justices recused themselves for their own connections to Luttig.

(J. Michael Luttig testified at Beazley’s trial. “Individuals must be held accountable at some point for actions such as this,” he told the media afterward. “I thought this was an appropriate case for the death penalty.”)

Both in the legal arena and in public opinion, Beazley’s case turned in an unusually uncluttered fashion on the principle of executing juvenile offenders.

Beazley was not mentally impaired, nor warped by childhood trauma, nor even generally underprivileged. His had been the black family accepted by the white community in his native Grapeland.

There was no question of Beazley’s guilt in the crime. None of the typical extenuating circumstances applied, save Beazley’s own eventual remorse.

“I don’t blame anybody else for being here but me,” Beazley would say later.

And since he pulled the trigger just weeks shy of his legal adulthood, even his youth was barely in play.

So, the question of whether Napoleon Beazley deserved to die was a pretty close proxy for the question of how bright a line the age of 18 ought to be where the death penalty was concerned.

Beazley lost crucial votes by the closest of margins: one Supreme Court appeal denied him on a 3-3 tie, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles turned him down 10-7.

If these votes reflected uncertainty over the juvenile death penalty as a policy, the matter would soon pass the tipping point to a resolution: Napoleon Beazley was the 19th person put to death in the modern American death penalty regime for a crime committed as a juvenile. Only three more followed before the Supreme Court (consisting of the same nine justices who had rejected Beazley’s appeal a few years before) ruled the death penalty for minors unconstitutional in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision.

There’s cinematic treatment of Beazley’s shocking crime in the recent documentary Two Hours to Tyler. There’s also a play about him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,Theft,USA

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