Napoleon's Last Stand

With only hours to go before his execution, Napoleon Beazley did his best to stay calm and unemotional. So did the rest of us.

ON MAY 28, 2002, NAPOLEON BEAZLEY sat in a windowless cell in the Death House, inside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, and waited for six o'clock to arrive. Hunched over a sheet of lined loose-leaf paper, the 25-year-old composed his last statement, to be read that evening, after his execution. He would not say any final words; contrition expressed from the gurney, he believed, would be viewed just as cynically as an eleventh-hour jailhouse conversion. Days earlier he had bid his family good-bye so that he might maintain his composure during these final hours. He appeared calm, except that his right foot kept twitching. Only later, when he was strapped to the gurney, would he look afraid.

A light rain had begun to fall outside, where a knot of protesters stood by the police barricades, some holding up handmade placards whose ink had smeared. "In half an hour, the State of Texas will commit murder!" a graying woman named Gloria Rubac was shouting into a microphone. "The murder is premeditated. The weapon of choice is poison. And every one of you yahoos with your cowboy hats"—she eyed a row of uniformed guards, some of whom stiffened under her gaze—"is going along with it."

Behind the barricades, two dozen folding chairs had been placed under a shade tree for reporters, a setting that suggested a sparsely attended school-board meeting or perhaps a press conference held by the chamber of commerce. Banal preparations were made outside, while inside, Napoleon declined his last meal. A prison official tested the podium's audio system. A blond TV news reporter held up a mirrored compact under the quartz lights, dabbing at her makeup. A cameraman lay in the shade, dozing. Rubac raised her microphone again and yelled loudly enough that her voice would carry over the shrill squawks of feedback. "This is a crime scene!" she cried. Above us all, on the face of the Walls, was the old black clock, its hands winding slowly toward the appointed hour.

HUNTSVILLE HAD ALREADY HOSTED three executions in May, bringing the total to thirteen this year—each one meriting no more than a few fleeting words on the local news between approaching cold fronts and the latest lottery numbers. This execution was not routine for me, however; I knew the inmate who was counting minutes inside the Walls, having interviewed him and corresponded with him while writing a story that ran in the April issue of this magazine, "Does Napoleon Beazley Deserve to Die?"

The question was one I had wrestled with and one the courts answered affirmatively this spring by a narrow margin. Napoleon's guilt was certain: He had, in recent years, owned up to his crime—an ugly, cold-blooded murder that he committed when he was seventeen. For reasons he never adequately explained, he shot Tyler oilman John Luttig in the head during a carjacking on April 19, 1994; as Luttig's wife played dead beside their Mercedes, Napoleon ordered an accomplice to "shoot the bitch," though the accomplice did not comply. The crime stunned the East Texas town of Grapeland, where Napoleon was the beloved president of his senior class and the son of the town's first black city councilman. Popular, smart, and charismatic, he seemed "destined for greatness," a classmate remembered, and hoped to attend Stanford Law School someday.

Last year Napoleon's attorneys filed a clemency petition with the U.S. Supreme Court that focused principally on the issue of his age, since he was a minor at the time of the crime. Three Supreme Court justices took the unusual step of voting for a stay of execution, three disagreed, and the remaining three—who knew the victim's son, federal judge J. Michael Luttig—recused themselves. No less remarkably, back in Texas, Napoleon's death sentence was opposed by the district attorney of his native Houston County, his trial judge, a former assistant warden of Texas' death row, and seven members of the notoriously unmerciful Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Their reasons ranged from Napoleon's age at the time of the crime and their belief that a life sentence was adequate for a teenager with no prior arrests to their discomfort with the fact that an all-white jury had sentenced him to death. Then there were the vagaries of the law itself: Napoleon's sentence was far more severe than that doled out to Todd Rasco, the perpetrator of a similar murder. In both cases, a 63-year-old Tyler man was chosen at random, ambushed by three young men, then shot to death. Napoleon's victim was a white civic leader whose son is a federal judge; Rasco's victim was a homeless black man. Even though Rasco had set out to "kill a nigger," most premeditated murders are not capital offenses under Texas law; there must also be an aggravating circumstance—in Napoleon's case, the crime of robbery. Rasco is alive and well and will be eligible for parole in 2019.

At no time was the ambivalence about Napoleon's sentence more evident than at his sentencing hearing on April 26, when state district judge Cynthia Stevens Kent, who had presided over his murder trial, delivered an impassioned speech in her Tyler courtroom, conveying her "principled objection" to executing youthful offenders. Kent cautioned that she was not "some weak-kneed judge," having set the execution date for five men during the course of her career. But, she said, "I am also always mindful, looking back in history, about judges that blindly followed the law when the law was so fundamentally inappropriate." She was nevertheless required by law to set a date for Napoleon's execution: Nine days earlier, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his appeal and vacated his stay. Kent made clear that her hands were tied; only the governor, acting on a recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, could commute Napoleon's sentence to life, which she urged him to do. "The courts are very bound by the constraints of the law," she said. "When it comes to mercy, I do not see

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