Monday, June 03, 2002

Conversation from death row with Napoleon Beazley

Editorial Board

Austin American-Statesman

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Napoleon Beazley's adulthood will be a short one -- it began on death row and is scheduled to end there today.

Beazley was 17 when a Smith County jury sentenced him to die for killing John Luttig, 63, in a botched 1994 carjacking. When he arrived on death row, Beazley was the youngest inmate there. Now 25, Beazley is scheduled to be executed by chemical injection.

There is no question about Beazley's guilt. He killed Luttig, a prominent Tyler businessman and father of a federal judge, because Beazley and his gang wanted to steal Luttig's Mercedes-Benz.

It was a senseless, brutal murder that stunned two quiet East Texas towns. The casual violence in Luttig's upscale neighborhood sent shock waves through Tyler. And it rocked the sleepy Grapeland community where Beazley was the toast of the town. There, Beazley was known for his promise: president of his senior class; honor student and star high school athlete.

Though there is no question about Beazley's guilt, his case still raises questions about the death penalty in Texas. Should minors (younger than 18) be sentenced to death? Is Texas' criminal justice system racially biased? Are death row inmates entitled to effective counsel throughout the legal appeals process? Can murderers be rehabilitated?

Those questions are being raised by some unlikely people. State District Judge Cynthia Kent, who presided over Beazley's trial, sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry last year asking him to commute Beazley's sentence to life. She cited Beazley's age at the time of the murder. Cindy Garner, the district attorney in Beazley's home county, also wrote Perry asking for leniency, noting that Beazley had no prior criminal record. A Grapeland City Council member and former warden of death row, George Pierson, also wrote state officials to oppose Beazley's execution.

Beazley's case is troubling for other reasons. It shakes our beliefs about family and community. Beazley was from a Christian, two-parent home. A search for answers about how and why a young man in command of his future -- voted runner-up for Mr. Grapeland High School -- would kill, took us to death row in Livingston. American-Statesman editorial writer Alberta Phillips interviewed Beazley last week, and excerpts follow.

American-Statesman: What was the hardest adjustment about prison?

Napoleon Beazley: It's different being on death row than being in prison, because you have the other element to think about. That kind of outweighs what's going on in prison -- knowing you are on death row and that you are here to die. When you know you are here to die, you start focusing on ways to live or how you live. That becomes important to you.

You were tried by an all-white jury after blacks were struck from the jury pool. You were 17 at the time of the murder. Do you think you got justice from the legal system?

Justice. That is a big word, a big word. You understand I'm biased, right?

Personally, as far as my growth goes, I can't sit up and think about those things in those terms, because I have to look at myself and say, "If it weren't for you, none of those things would have happened."

What does your case teach us about capital punishment?

You do look at my case and say, "OK, look, these are the problems in the system we need to correct." But personally, I can't make that argument for myself. I'm sorry, but I just can't do that.

Many people have asked you this question, but how did you find yourself at a place where you took a man's life? You were an honor student with dreams of going to Stanford Law. What happened?

Oh, man. As far as giving details, that is something I really can't do for you because I don't want anything I say to come off as trying to justify what happened. There is no justification for what happened. . . . I made a bad choice . . . a very bad choice. A shameful, heinous, senseless -- whatever synonym you can think to describe it, it's all that. I made a lot of bad choices before I got here. That one was the poorest one I made.

If you can't say why it happened, then when did you cross the line? What went through your mind when you went out carjacking and you shoot and kill a man?

I believe every good act, every heinous thing, is first conceived in thought. Once you plant that seed in your head of what you are going to do, the rest is going through the mechanics. When Cedric Coleman (an accomplice who planned the carjacking) brought this crime to my attention, the details, and he asked , "You down with that?" I told him, "Yeah. I'm down." That's when it happened. Not that night (of the murder). But when I said yes to it, because that was my time to say no. The seed was planted.

You've talked about how badly you were ridiculed by blacks for "acting white," for speaking proper English, making good grades and carrying yourself a certain way. Black kids called you "white boy" for hanging with white kids. That affected you?

Yeah, sure. But since coming here, I've come to understand that racism only affects us as much as we allow it to. I allowed those things to affect me. But call it isolation. You isolate a group of people to the point where they have no identity. That peer pressure, where you're not black enough for the blacks, not white enough for the whites and you are left alone. I think that is what causes that feeling of isolation. I didn't belong.

Before I got here, I spent so much time, so much energy and effort, in doing things so people would like me. Being this and being that, just to fit in. When I got here I learned that I'm going to be myself. For me to come here and do that and have people still like me, it's a very important lesson to learn.

Are you afraid to die?

I'm not afraid to die. Do I want to die -- hell no.

When you die, on your tombstone you have two things; the day you were born and the day you die. There's that dash in the middle that tells people how you lived. How I live is important to me. Dying is easy. It's the living that most people find really hard.

I want something positive to come out of this no matter what happens to me. If any blessing doesn't come to me directly, as long as somebody is blessed by the experience. To me that is important, and that is what I'm focused on.

How have you filled in that dash in the middle?

I used to want to be black . . . I moved away from being what's black to being what's human . . . I understand . . . that certain things transcend race and gender, and those things are what I look at now in people.

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