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.

July 2002By Comments

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 that within the purview of the courts.” She set an execution date of May 28.

Napoleon, who sat at the defense table, rose and asked to address the court. Prison had prematurely aged him; he appeared even more careworn than the last time I had seen him, in January, his face having grown sallow and hollow-eyed. Facing the judge, his shackled hands by his side, Napoleon expressed his hope that the Luttigs, who were not present, might somehow hear his words. “Eight years ago I involved myself in a crime I instantly regretted,” he said. “I knew it was wrong. I know it is wrong now. I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since that moment. I’ve apologized ever since that moment, not just through words but through my acts.” As he spoke, he began to weep. “I violated the law. I violated this city, and I violated a family—all to satisfy my own misguided emotions.” Here, his voice cracked, and he said the next two words with fierce feeling. “I’m sorry. I wish I had a second chance to make up for it, but I don’t.”

NAPOLEON’S EXECUTION would take place on a languid spring day when the crape myrtles were in bloom. Laundry churned around in soapy circles at the Sunshine Washateria. Watermelons were on sale for $3.99 at Brookshire Brothers. The lunch special at the Café Texan was, as usual, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy. Prison vans mingled with the afternoon traffic, their handcuffed passengers gawking from behind barred windows. Men with buzz cuts who had been released from prison that morning sipped beer from brown paper bags and waited for the Greyhound bus that would take them home to Fort Worth or El Paso or Abilene—anywhere but here.

That evening, Napoleon would become the 270th person to die by lethal injection since that became the preferred method of execution twenty years ago. At the Texas Prison Museum, on the town square, Old Sparky—the fearsome, polished-oak electric chair in which 361 inmates previously perished—still gleams under a spotlight. Back when the executioner used to flip its switch, sending two thousand volts of electricity through a condemned man’s body, the town’s lights, according to lore, would dim. (The executioner would then reduce the current to five hundred volts, lest the inmate catch on fire.) By comparison, lethal injection is more of an abstraction—a method of killing to which it is easier to become inured. So routine have executions become that the men slated to die on Monday nights in the fall would find their final hours punctuated, incongruously, by the exuberant cheers of inmates during Monday night football. If any of this gives residents pause, they keep it to themselves; Huntsville is a company town, where dissenting opinions about the death penalty are uttered only in confidence. On the day of Napoleon’s execution, a Texas Monthly photographer stopped to shoot pictures of a Baptist church sign that read “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; he told the church secretary that he would come back that evening to shoot more. When he returned a few hours later, the sign had been changed to “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.”

Just after noon Napoleon was put in restraints and taken to the Death House. An hour earlier, the Board of Pardons and Paroles had declined to commute his sentence to life in prison by 10-7, one of the board’s closest votes in the past one hundred death penalty cases it had reviewed. By mid-afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected Napoleon’s final appeal, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had denied his motion for another stay. (“A Texas killer’s hopes wane . . .” announced one AM radio news station.) At two-thirty, his attorney, Walter Long, was en route to Huntsville when he received a call that made him return to Austin: A Missouri death row inmate named Christopher Simmons, who had committed murder when he was seventeen and who had filed a petition with the courts that was identical to Napoleon’s, arguing that executing youthful offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s provision against cruel and unusual punishment, had received a stay from the Missouri Supreme Court, pending the outcome of a related U.S. Supreme Court case to be decided in June. Back in Austin, Long pointed to the Simmons stay and pleaded with Governor Rick Perry’s staff for a thirty-day reprieve, but the governor was unmoved. “To delay his punishment is to delay justice,” Perry told reporters.

At 4:36 that afternoon, John Luttig’s daughter, Suzanne, strode past reporters and into the Walls, her face pale and drawn. She was flanked by Smith County criminal district attorney Jack Skeen, an assistant DA, and an FBI agent, all wearing dark suits and a grim sense of purpose as they walked together in silence. Suzanne Luttig’s brief appearance outside the Walls caused a hush to fall over the assembled reporters, who stopped talking as she passed by in a show of respect. Suzanne was the only member of the Luttig family to attend Napoleon’s execution, and she would have no comments for the press afterward. As she waited for six o’clock to arrive, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s spokesman, Larry Fitzgerald, was visiting Napoleon. “I’ll remember his demeanor for a long time,” says Fitzgerald, who has witnessed more than 170 executions. “Napoleon was nervous but extremely collected. And as always, he was very cooperative and polite.” According to tradition, Fitzgerald had to size up the condemned man’s mood, then describe it to reporters waiting outside. He told Napoleon that he appeared calm.

“Look again,” Napoleon replied with a jittery laugh.

“How about ‘pensive’?” Fitzgerald offered.

Napoleon nodded and smiled weakly. “That’s good,” he said.

At 6:02, five guards came for him. Napoleon walked the ten paces from his cell to the execution chamber, where a “tie-down team” asked him to lie on the gurney. He complied, and they bound him with six thick leather straps. A two-man “IV team” then entered, sliding catheters into both of his forearms. Only then were the witnesses (I was not one) ushered into an adjacent room. Napoleon lay supine, his body rigid. At his head stood the warden, at his feet the chaplain, who rested his hand reassuringly on Napoleon’s right leg. “Do you have any final words?” the warden asked. Napoleon turned to his right, where Suzanne Luttig stood behind a sheet of glass, and stared at her for a long time before finally turning away and saying wearily, “No.” With that, he closed his eyes. The warden nodded at the executioner behind the two-way mirror, and the lethal $86.08 cocktail was released into Napoleon’s veins: sodium thiopental for sedation; pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that collapses the diaphragm and lungs; and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Napoleon coughed four times and gasped. Then he stirred no more. Several minutes later, after a doctor confirmed that he had no heartbeat, the chaplain pulled a white sheet over his face. The time was 6:17 p.m.

Outside, prison spokesperson Michelle Lyons announced the time of death and answered questions. With tight deadlines to meet, there was little time for the reporters to reflect. “Boy, that’s the highest audio I’ve had in a long time,” said one cameraman after the press conference ended. “Basically you don’t want the package—you want the quick update?” a reporter said into her cell phone. “Okay, but I think you should cut at least thirty seconds of tape so we can see the guy we’re talking about.” Another reporter applied lipstick, then laughed at a private joke with her cameraman. Few stopped to read the sheet of paper we had been handed.

“The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was senseless,” Napoleon’s final statement began. “But the person that committed that act is no longer here—I am. I’m not going to struggle physically against any restraints. I’m not going to shout, use profanity, or make idle threats. Understand, though, that I’m not only upset, but I’m saddened by what is happening here tonight . . . Tonight, we tell our children that in some instances, in some cases, killing is right.” The statement continued, “I’m sorry that I am here. I’m sorry that you all are here. I’m sorry that John Luttig died. And I’m sorry that it was something in me that caused all of this to happen.” In closing, he wrote, “No one wins tonight. No one gets closure. No one walks away victorious.”

AS JOURNALISTS, we are supposed to remain detached from the stories we cover, no matter how difficult the subject. And so I went through the motions that Tuesday evening in May after Napoleon was pronounced dead, asking prison officials questions and jotting down notes, then meeting with the magazine’s photographer for dinner. We both avoided talking about the execution, an absurd attempt to pretend this was just another story. It was only early the next morning, after waking from an awful dream I could not remember, that I let myself cry. I wondered what Suzanne Luttig had felt the night before—fury, terror, or an emotion that has no easy label—as her father’s killer stared at her, wordlessly, from the gurney. I hoped the execution had brought her and her family some measure of solace, but I doubted it had, for John Luttig was still dead. The execution had succeeded in leaving behind another grieving family. The Beazleys, who had come to death row every Saturday for seven years to see their eldest son—to look at him through the plastic partition that divided them, to weep and talk and pray with him, and to wonder again and again where they, as parents, had erred—now had to pick out the suit and casket in which he would be buried.

That morning, I went to the Café Texan to get a cup of coffee. A cheerful waitress greeted me, then turned to one of the cafe’s regulars, a weathered old man in blue jeans with a creased face, who settled onto one of the red Naugahyde stools.

“Morning, Cooter,” the waitress said, pouring his coffee. “How you doing?”

“Good, good,” the old man said. “Got a case of the sniffles, that’s all.”

The waitress cocked her head and listened, smiling as the man talked about his health, then the drought. A few ranchers in white straw hats chortled in the background. A handsome man who looked to be a sheriff’s deputy, with a pair of handcuffs looped through his belt, dug into a plate of steak and eggs. I sat and sipped my coffee, downing two aspirin in hopes of relieving a headache that had begun earlier that morning. John Luttig was dead. Napoleon Beazley was dead. For the rest of us, life went on.

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