On April 19, 1994, the day that seventeen-year-old Napoleon Beazley committed cold-blooded murder, the high school senior came home from track practice, showered, and changed into a fresh pair of blue jeans. At that moment, just before he loaded his Haskell .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and tucked it into his pants, the future held more promise for Napoleon than it had for generations of Beazleys before him, who had made a modest living raising peanuts and cotton near the East Texas town of Grapeland. Napoleon was the president of his senior class and a star athlete, a bright teenager with a loose-limbed confidence and a dazzling smile who had just been voted runner-up for the title of Mr. Grapeland High School. He didn’t drink; he didn’t smoke; he went to church on Sunday. He was an honor student and hoped to attend Stanford Law School someday. But for a light-skinned black teenager mocked by his black peers for acting “too white,” success was not always a blessing. Ambition kindled resentment on the rutted roads south of Chestnut Street, where sagging frame houses have gone to seed and young men idle under shade trees and stray dogs root around for bones. Here, the pistol lent him the hard-edged, cocksure certainty that no scholarship or touchdown could ever provide.
That night, Napoleon left Grapeland with two small-time hoods, brothers Cedrick and Donald “Fig” Coleman. What happened next would prove to be unfathomable to those people in Grapeland, white and black, who had known Napoleon throughout his short but promising life. He and the Coleman brothers headed first for Corsicana, then for Tyler, an hour’s drive north of Grapeland, looking for a vehicle to carjack. Around eleven o’clock they caught sight of a cream-colored Mercedes-Benz, which they began to tail through a residential neighborhood of large, cantilevered houses and manicured lawns. Inside the Mercedes, Bobbie Luttig sensed that she and her husband of 41 years, independent oilman John Luttig, were being followed.
As John Luttig drove into their garage, Napoleon darted up the Luttigs’ winding driveway, his pistol drawn. Fig Coleman strode behind him, holding a sawed-off shotgun, while Cedrick waited in the car. No doubt John Luttig would have peacefully handed over the keys to his Mercedes, but he never had the chance. As he stepped out of the car, Bobbie heard him utter one word—”No!”—and then saw the flash of a gun muzzle. John Luttig fell to his knees, struck by a bullet that had grazed his head. Napoleon then fired at Bobbie. Though the shot missed its mark, she sank, terror-stricken, to the garage floor and played dead, her face pressed against the oil-stained cement. Her husband was still alive, kneeling beside the car in shock. Napoleon leaned over the bleeding man and pulled the trigger again. Bobbie kept still, her eyes shut, as her husband’s blood coursed down the driveway. Only after the Mercedes skidded away did she dare move, racing to a neighbor’s house and telling the 911 dispatcher, “My husband has been shot. Please hurry!”
“Carjackers Kill Tyler Civic Leader Luttig,” the headlines read the next day. “Friends Astounded By Brutal Act.” What set this crime apart was not its depravity, or its casual violence, or its utter senselessness but its power to stir deeply divided emotions—in Grapeland, in Tyler, even in the highest echelons of jurisprudence, all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Napoleon Beazley was not just any murderer, and John Luttig was not just any victim. Napoleon was a minor at the time of his crime, and his case inevitably raised the question of whether even a vicious killer can be too young to be sentenced to death. John Luttig was not only a prominent white citizen in Tyler but also the father of the Honorable J. Michael Luttig, a federal judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and is believed to be on President Bush’s short list for potential Supreme Court nominees. Judge Luttig asked that “those who committed this brutal crime receive the full punishment that the law provides.” A Smith County jury later sentenced Napoleon to death.
And yet in Texas, hardly known for its hesitation in administering the death penalty, Napoleon Beazley’s death sentence has given some unlikely people pause: As Napoleon’s first execution date neared last August, the hard-nosed state district judge who oversaw his 1995 trial asked the governor to commute his sentence to life in prison, citing the fact that Napoleon was seventeen at the time of the crime. The district attorney in Napoleon’s native Houston County petitioned the governor for leniency, citing his prior good character and lack of a criminal record. No less extraordinary, the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 over a stay of execution after three justices with personal ties to Judge Luttig, the victim’s son, recused themselves.
Last August the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Napoleon’s execution just four hours before the sentence was to be carried out. The court can grant a hearing—or allow his execution to proceed—at any time. In the days and weeks ahead, the court must weigh both the crime and its proper punishment and rule whether justice should be tempered with mercy, or whether Napoleon Beazley deserves to die.
Words seem trite in describing what follows when your husband is murdered in your presence, when your father is stripped from your life. The horror, the agony, the emptiness, the despair, the chaos, the confusion, the sense—perhaps temporary but perhaps not—that one’s life no longer has any purpose, the doubt, the hopelessness. There are no words that can possibly describe it, and all it entails.
testimony of J. Michael Luttig
“ANY EXPLANATION I GIVE FOR WHY it happened would seem like a justification, and for me, there is no justification for what happened,” says Napoleon Beazley. He is seated behind a sheet of Plexiglas at the Terrell Unit in Livingston, the new home of death row. “I don’t blame my family; I don’t blame my friends; I don’t