In Our Names
Executions disgrace the state and community of Texas
Try this for an "axis of evil": the United States, Iran, and the Congo.
The connection may not be immediately obvious, but it is real enough. These three countries are now the only ones in the world which officially allow the execution of juveniles -- that is, offenders who were under 18 years of age at the time of their crimes. Even the People's Republic of China, which annually cranks out executions by the thousands, no longer executes juvenile offenders. The overwhelming majority of sovereign states -- even that shrinking number which retain the death penalty -- subscribe to the common understanding that a minor cannot be judged by the same moral or emotional standards as an adult, and that to execute a child is both a violation of human rights and a disgrace to the community that takes part in it.
In fact, the initial comparison may well be unfair to Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- according to authorities on capital punishment, Iran has at least publicly forsworn the execution of children, and the Congo recently commuted the death sentences of four juvenile offenders. Although the U.S. federal government no longer executes minors, it does not forbid it to the states under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment).
Texas, alas, remains one of a small handful of states that continue to execute those under 18, and apparently with an increasing relish. At a Capitol press conference last week, death penalty attorney Walter Long pointed out that in a time when the state's execution schedule is again accelerating, there are now 30 men on Texas' death row who were minors at the time of their crimes.
The press conference was called in connection with Tuesday's scheduled execution of Long's client Napoleon Beazley, who was 17 years old in 1994 when he murdered John Luttig in Tyler during a carjacking. The conference was held by Beazley's appeal attorneys as well as representatives of more than 15 local religious congregations in a dozen denominations. No one claimed that Beazley is "innocent," and no one suggested he be absolved of his crime. In the words of Pastor Angie Dickson of Dallas, they had come to plead to Board of Pardons and Paroles and to Gov. Rick Perry for mercy: that is, the "unmerited favor" of a sentence of life imprisonment for a young man who committed a horrible crime before he was of age. A statement by Bishop Gregory Aymond of the Catholic Diocese of Austin recalled the simple words of the U.S. bishops in 1999: "'We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.'"
Once again, it was not a lesson the state of Texas cared to hear. The Board voted 10-7 against clemency, Gov. Perry declined to grant a stay, and Napoleon Beazley was executed in all our names.
"Mercy" is intended to be the particular purview of the members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, charged with considering not the legal issues but mitigating factors which might merit a recommendation of clemency to the governor. In practice, the board almost invariably rubber-stamps the legal record. Questioned before a federal court about their methods of case review a few years ago, the Board members repeated variations on an irrelevant theme: "I check to see if the defendant was duly convicted, and if he had full access to the courts." While they might not understand the meaning of mercy, they certainly understood the job they unofficially had been appointed to do: to protect the governor (Republican or Democrat) from the politically embarrassing position of having to overturn (or worse, sustain) a recommendation against execution.
The current Board has shown recent signs of paying more serious attention to its true charge: The votes for execution, instead of being routinely unanimous, are occasionally getting closer. Small comfort to the condemned. Yet even the sordid politics of capital punishment argue caution in the case of juvenile offenders -- according to a Gallup poll published this month, while a strong majority of Americans (72%) support the death penalty, almost the same number (69%) oppose its use against juveniles.
Of course, the dismal injustices of the capital punishment system in Texas do not stop at age 18. As Andrea Keilen of the Texas Defender Service argued at the press conference, the state's utterly inadequate provisions for both direct defense and habeas appeal, coupled with the racially biased application of capital prosecutions, mean that those executed are the arbitrarily selected poor and minorities, especially those whose victims were white.
Selective Prosecution, Inadequate Defense
"Napoleon Beazley's case reflects a policy and practice of the Criminal Court of Appeals," charged Keilen, "of refusing to appoint competent lawyers to people sentenced to die." (Beazley's state habeas lawyer admitted he had done an incompetent job -- yet he remains on the CCA's current list of about 135 lawyers approved for habeas appeals.) Keilen noted that the CCA's list of "competent" appeal attorneys includes "at least three prosecutors, one employee of the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, one lawyer whose license has been suspended, one lawyer who is no longer an active member of the bar, at least four lawyers who have been disciplined by the bar, and one lawyer who is dead."
As dispiriting as those facts are, the selectively racist foundation of death row in Texas is more damning: "With the rarest of exceptions," noted Keilen, "whites in Texas do not receive the death penalty for the capital murder of a black person. Currently, of the 454 persons on death row only 5 (1%) are whites who were convicted of killing a black person. Two of those whites were convicted of the gruesome racist hate murder of James Byrd, and another was also convicted of killing a white person. However, as of 1998, African-Americans were six times more likely than whites to be murdered."
The most extraordinary document distributed in defense of Beazley was a lengthy and closely argued letter to the Board from Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Tutu shows a remarkably detailed knowledge of the problems in Beazley's case, marked by apparently vindictive prosecution, inadequate defense, and racial bias. One hopes the board members and the governor became at least as familiar with that history before they made their decisions. Speaking specifically of the execution of juvenile offenders, Tutu notes the inevitable multiplication of capital punishment: "The State forces the innocent family to atone for the death of the victim by causing it unbearable grief."
Walter Long noted that yet another prominent South African (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) had responded to the Beazley case by noting his opposition to the execution of minors: F.W. de Klerk, the last president of South Africa under apartheid. Of course, it is with considerable moral authority that South Africans can speak on these questions to the U.S. and Texas. Under its new constitution, that country not only refrains from executing juveniles, it has abolished the death penalty altogether -- even for the perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes of the apartheid era.
But in Texas, we're still making our last stand -- with the likes of China, Iran, and the Congo.