Unusual circumstances in Texas stay of execution

The Associated Press
Friday August 17, 2001

AUSTIN — The successful last-minute attempt to spare the life of convicted killer Napoleon Beazley included two unusual twists: the judge who presided over Beazley’s trial asked the governor to stop the execution, and one of his own appeals lawyers admitted doing a poor job. 

Beazley was 17 when he killed John Luttig, the father of a federal judge who has ties to three U.S. Supreme Court justices. The case has divided the Supreme Court and renewed criticism of states that apply the death penalty to teenagers. 

A state appeals court stopped the execution four hours before Beazley was to die by injection on Wednesday so it could review his case.  

Just before the court ordered the delay, Beazley’s trial judge, Cynthia Kent, faxed a letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to commute Beazley’s sentence to life in prison. 

Although the trial was free of error, the judge wrote, Beazley’s life should be spared because of his age at the time of the murder.  

In Texas, juries decide whether convicted killers should be executed. 

Perry said Thursday he was aware of the judge’s letter but wouldn’t say what he would do. Perry can grant a 30-day reprieve from execution, but can’t order a commutation without the recommendation of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which already voted to proceed with the execution. 

Smith County District Attorney Jack Skeen Jr., said he opposes the surprise request and would “strongly urge” Perry against commuting the sentence.  

Kent didn’t immediately return a call for comment Thursday and her staff said the judge wouldn’t comment on a pending case. 

The judge’s letter is “very unusual,” said Rob Owen, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas law school and director of the school’s capital punishment clinic.  

Owen said he had never heard of a judge writing such a letter in a capital murder case. 

“She has grown to agree that while he deserved to be punished, he was not the most dangerous criminal who deserved to be executed,” Owen said. 

Also rare, Owen said, was a sworn statement from one of Beazley’s appeals attorneys, blaming himself for mistakes in his case.  

Although claims of inadequate counsel are common on direct appeal, it is unusual for an appeals attorney to criticize himself later, Owen said. 

Robin Norris, who represented Beazley in one of his rounds of appeals, has submitted a sworn statement admitting his investigation and preparation of the case were incomplete.  

He also said he didn’t research or brief the issues regarding Beazley’s age. 

Norris also said his caseload was too heavy because he was handling several other death penalty cases at the same time. 

“I feel a good case can be made for my responsibility for the shortcomings of my investigator,” Norris said.  

“If I’m not going to be responsible, nobody will be.” 

Beazley would be the 19th U.S. prisoner to die since 1976 for a murder committed by a person younger than 18.  

He would be the 10th in Texas, where he was among 31 death row inmates who were 17 at the time of their crime. 

Beazley, a high school class president and star athlete who also had dealt drugs and carried firearms, killed Luttig as he and his wife were returning home to Tyler.