Death Watch: Two Set to Die
Both death row inmates claim murder was not intentional
Although Clifton Williams narrowly avoided execution July 16, two Texans are scheduled for the gurney next week. Both inmates maintain that they didn't mean for the individuals they killed to die, though their opinions about their pending fates differ.
Corpus Christi native Daniel Lee Lopez is scheduled to die first; he's currently slated to be strapped in at 6pm on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Lopez was driving 60 miles an hour through a neighborhood in March 2009 trying to evade cops and avoid arrest for outstanding warrants when he hit and killed 20-year veteran police officer Stuart Alexander as he was laying Stop Sticks near the highway. Lopez was eventually apprehended after being shot in the arm, neck, and chest. Then 21, he was indicted for 10 offenses, including the capital murder of Alexander. He initially pleaded not guilty, but later changed his stance. He was assigned to a psychologist, who reported that Lopez held an "increasingly firm" opinion that he'd rather a death sentence than live the rest of his life in prison. The state offered life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea, but Lopez pleaded not guilty and went to trial.
Central to the case was debate on whether or not Lopez intentionally ran over Lt. Alexander. At times, he told attorneys that he didn't mean to do it, that his sight was affected by shots of pepper spray deployed by other officers. Yet, just prior to closing arguments, attorneys informed the judge that Lopez insisted on testifying that he did in fact mean to swerve and hit Alexander. The court rejected Lopez's request, but the jury still found him guilty on all counts, including capital murder. Lopez waived his right to a state petition for habeas corpus in April 2012 and filed his federal papers that May. The brief, largely blank application asserted one solitary ground for relief: that the death penalty in Texas violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. He underwent a series of competency exams and hearings in 2013, and soon after received his right to waive appeal from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
His attorneys – James Rytting, David Dow, and Jeffrey Newberry – maintain that he should never have been found guilty of capital murder, as his testimony concerning his actions continuously flipped from intentional to unintentional. They thus contest that the district court erred in accepting Lopez's waiver, as Lopez does not understand that the conduct to which he admits – an unintentional murder – does not fall within the definition of capital murder. Lopez, however, remains convinced he's made the right call. In April, he told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that he accepts his punishment. "It wasn't on purpose," he said. "I killed a police officer because I tried escaping. And it was never intentional but I feel responsible."
The second individual, Tracy Beatty, goes to the gurney one day after Lopez. Beatty, 54, was arrested for the Nov. 25, 2003, murder of his mother, 62-year-old Carolyn Click. Beatty strangled, smothered, and/or suffocated Click during an argument at her home, and left her in the tub for two days before burying her in the ground beside her house and making off with her car and possessions. When questioned, he told authorities that a man named Junior Reynolds had actually killed his mother; that he then killed Reynolds and dumped him "in water" before returning to his mother's house to ice her in the tub and eventually bury her by the house. But the investigation turned to Beatty. During his arrest, as he was being delivered from Henderson County to the Smith County Jail, he told authorities: "I really didn't mean to kill her. I came in drunk. She started bitching at me, and I just started choking her. I didn't even know she was dead until the next morning when I found her still laying on the living room floor." He was indicted for capital murder the following May and found guilty on Aug. 9, 2004. Deemed a future threat because of two prior felony convictions – injury to a child in 1986 and a robbery in 1988 – he was sentenced to death on Aug. 10.
Attorney Jeff Haas argued in petitions for habeas corpus and appeals to the 5th Circuit that his client received ineffective assistance from counsel in two different forms: Trial counsel failed to discover and present mitigating evidence, and failed to properly present enough facts to prove Click's "killing was a murder rather than capital murder." Haas pointed to one instance in particular, unmentioned during trial, in which Click and an acquaintance had an argument that a witness indicated looked as though they would "rip each other's heads off." He attempted to use that testimony as evidence that Beatty had no intention to kill his mother when he showed up at her house; that a heated conversation escalated to that point. Efforts for relief, however, were denied, and in July 2014, the 5th Circuit denied his application for a certificate of appealability. The Supreme Court rejected his case in May.
Lopez is set to be the 10th Texan executed this year, with Beatty in line to be No. 11. Should both executions go through, the state will end the week having executed 529 people since reinstating the death penalty in 1976.