AUG 02, 2001

Texas Travesty


The state of Texas is planning to execute Napoleon Beazley on Aug. 15 for a murder he committed when he was 17 years old.

The crime, which occurred in 1994, was inexcusable. Mr. Beazley and two accomplices were hijacking a Mercedes-Benz from a couple in Tyler, Tex., when — in an apparent panic — Mr. Beazley opened fire with a .45-caliber pistol, killing the husband, John Luttig, who was 63 years old.

Mr. Luttig just happened to be the father of a prominent federal judge, Michael Luttig of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia. Despite the age of the defendant when the crime was committed, Judge Luttig and his family wanted the death penalty imposed.

Mr. Beazley's attorney, Walter C. Long, in an emotional clemency plea to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, wrote that at one point during the trial, "Assistant District Attorney David Dobbs had an off-the-record conversation with the trial judge, Hon. Cynthia Kent, by all appearances about the appropriateness of the death penalty in the case, and explained, when back on the record, that the surviving family wanted it."

At that point it would have been fair to ask if the Texas court system was moving smoothly toward justice, or careening toward revenge.

Judge Luttig closely observed and may even have participated in the case against Mr. Beazley, whose co-defendants agreed to plea bargains, testified against him and escaped capital prosecution. "At another point in the record," wrote Mr. Long, "Dobbs confirmed Judge Luttig's close participation in Napoleon's trial by asking Judge Kent for an over-night break because Judge Luttig wanted to review juror questionnaires with the prosecutors to help them make their peremptory challenges."

The prosecution, which claims it acted on its own, used its challenges effectively, if reprehensibly. The Luttig family is white, and an all-white jury was seated to try Mr. Beazley, who is black. As Mr. Long wrote:

"The prosecutors exercised one of their challenges against an African-American prospective juror, who belonged to the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., while choosing a white female juror, Maxine Herbst, who was (and currently is) president of the local branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and flies the national flag of the Confederacy from her house."

This is the kind of ugliness that is business-as-usual in Texas. The state should not be executing anyone who was a minor at the time the offense occurred. (Nearly all the nations of the world and most states in the United States have ended this foul practice. But not Texas.) At the same time, the capital punishment system in Texas is so blatantly riddled with racism that you end up with a Confederate-flag-waving juror as one of 12 all-white jurors passing judgment in a capital case on a black defendant.

It's a sick system.

In May 1996, a year after Napoleon Beazley's trial, a homeless black man named Ivan Holland, who was 63 years old (the same age as Judge Luttig's father), was shotgunned to death on a street corner in Tyler. Two men of the same age shot to death in the same town. One white and privileged. The other black and poor.

Mr. Holland was attacked by three young white men — not juveniles — who were said to have had a "Hitler fetish." One of the men, Todd Rasco, 23, said he had bought the shotgun and told his friends he was considering suicide. He said they told him not to kill himself, but instead to "just kill a nigger."

They drove around Tyler looking for a "nigger" to shoot. They found Mr. Holland and Mr. Rasco shot him. That must have helped him over his depression because he never did kill himself.

None of the three men were even subject to the death penalty under Texas law. By itself, the premeditated murder of someone is not a capital offense in Texas. There must be a very specific aggravating circumstance. In the Luttig case, it was the theft of the car.

Mr. Rasco was sentenced to 45 years in prison, and one of his accomplices got 37 1/2 years. (The third man died in a car crash.) They will be eligible for parole after serving half their sentences.

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