At last - Escape from Death Row

A landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court - banning the execution of criminals who were under 18 when they committed their crime - will save hundreds of lives, reports Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

For Ireland and Rena Beazley, the decision came a little too late. Their eldest son, Napoleon, was executed in May 2002 for a murder he committed when he was 17. At the time of his execution by lethal injection, his lawyer argued for clemency on the grounds that Beazley had been just a juvenile when he shot and killed a man during a robbery that went wrong. His pleas were rejected.

For Ireland and Rena Beazley, the decision came a little too late. Their eldest son, Napoleon, was executed in May 2002 for a murder he committed when he was 17. At the time of his execution by lethal injection, his lawyer argued for clemency on the grounds that Beazley had been just a juvenile when he shot and killed a man during a robbery that went wrong. His pleas were rejected.

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear Beazley's case, belatedly agreed with his lawyer when it ruled 5-4 to ban the execution of prisoners who were under 18 when they committed their crimes. The decision will spare the lives of up to 70 prisoners being held on death row for crimes they carried out while still legally children.

"It's good news," Mr Beazley told The Independent by telephone from his small house in Grapeland, Texas. "Napoleon was 25 when he was executed but 17 at the time of his crime.

"Right now, we know a few people at the [death row complex]. They're pretty ecstatic right now ... This was the day we were hoping for."

The decision by the Supreme Court represents the conclusion of a long and protracted battle by death penalty campaigners in the US to end the execution of juveniles. They have long pointed out that America was one of just a handful of states including China, Pakistan, Iran and the Congo that still executed juveniles. Indeed, of about 25 documented juvenile executions in the past decade, more than half were carried out in the US, predominantly in Texas. At the same time, several of the previously mentioned countries were introducing legislation to put an end to the practice.

Amnesty International, one of the leading campaigners on the issue, said yesterday's decision was "very gratifying". "Last year, we started a campaign to try to end juvenile executions worldwide by the end of 2005 so this is a good development," said Kristin Houle, of AI's programme to end the death penalty. She said that, since 2000, the organisation had recorded 18 juvenile executions, nine of which were carried out in the US.

In their ruling, the justices said the practice of executing juveniles violated the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution which prohibits the "cruel and unusual punishment". Sixteen years ago the Supreme Court had rejected that notion but, yesterday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said: "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."

He noted that only 18 of the 38 US states that permit execution allowed the execution of juveniles and public opinion was moving away from the practice. The trend, he said, is to abolish the practice because "our society views juveniles ... as categorically less culpable than the average criminal".

The court made its ruling in relation to the specific case of Christopher Simmons from Missouri who was 17 in 1993 when he kidnapped a woman who lived nearby, tied her up and threw her from a bridge.

The body of the woman, Shirley Crook, 46, was found in the Meramec River in St Louis County. She had been tied with electric cable, leather straps and duct tape, had bruises on her body and fractured ribs.

Prosecutors said Simmons had planned to burgle and kill the woman and that he bragged he would get away with it because of his age.

Simmons had originally been scheduled for execution in May 2002. But he received an initial stay at almost exactly the same time that Beazley's appeal for clemency was set aside and he was put to death. The following year, in August 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court set aside Simmons' death sentence and instead commuted it to one of life imprisonment. The state authorities appealed that decision and case was then sent to the US Supreme Court in Washington which ruled yesterday.

Simmons's supporters said yesterday the child killer was now a remorseful adult who has worked to end violence. "This is a victory for the nation but also for us here in Missouri," Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Ban Youth Executions Coalition, said. "He has grown up a whole lot and has tried to work with young people. He has realised the mistakes he made and regrets his decisions that night."

As with all the other juvenile death penalty cases, at the heart of both Simmons' and Beazley's defences was the argument that, at the age of 17 a person was less responsible and therefore less culpable for their actions.

When The Independent visited the Beazley family on a sweltering summer day in 2001, his parents passed around a photograph of their son when he was aged 13. It was a black and white picture of a young boy, kitted out in a running vest, baton and a bright innocent smile on his face. His father said his son had always been a good athlete.

But neither Mr Beazley or his wife attempted to downplay or excuse the murder their son committed. That took place on the night of April 1994 when Beazley and two friends, Cedric and Donald Coleman set out in Mrs Beazley's car to the town of Tyler, 60 miles to the north.

Although Beazley had no criminal record at the time, he later admitted he was involved with selling drugs, in particular crack cocaine. He had also recently bought a .45 handgun. That night Beazley - president of his senior year at high school and recently enlisted for the Marines - and the Coleman brothers tried to "carjack" a Mercedes Benz belonging to John Luttig, a Korean War veteran and a leading member of Tyler society. Mr Luttig, 63, was pulling into the driveway of his house with his wife, Bobbie, when the three teenagers struck.

At some point - the reason to this day remains unclear - Beazley drew his gun and shot Mr Luttig, father of a federal judge, in the head. He died, his wife crawled under the car and survived. The three assailants were arrested seven weeks later and tried separately. The Colemans were first tried and convicted by a federal court on charges of carjacking. They received sentences of more than 40 years, though the death penalty was not sought.

The prosecution then used allegedly false testimony from the Coleman brothers to convict Beazley. Donald Coleman told the court he had told them: "I'm going back into Tyler to get me a car. I want to see what it feels like to see somebody die."

In a subsequent affidavit, Coleman said that testimony had been a lie and he had been coached on what to say by the FBI. "Napoleon didn't mean to shoot Mr Luttig. He cried all the way home. He was still crying when he came over to see my brother the next day."

Amid intense international pressure, Beazley won one stay of execution. On that occasion, his father was at the funeral home finalising arrangements when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an emergency stay. It, in effect, gave him another 10 months: he was executed the following spring.

In their ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court also cited as a factor in their decision the international opposition to the practice of juvenile execution. That admission is likely to be subject of intense debate within legal and political circles.

"It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime," wrote Justice Kennedy.

Anne James, the director of the Virginia-based International Justice Project, a group that has campaigned for the application of international law to the US death penalty, said the Supreme Court decision marked a victory for their efforts. "The ruling refers to the European Union and the international community's briefs [to the court]," she said. "The US, in the past few years, was out on its own. Lately, we have reported executions of juveniles outside of the US but the number of states that do these executions is going down to the extent that the US was out of step."

But the closeness of the ruling by the Supreme Court underlines the broader debate about the death penalty within the US. In recent years, there has been a clear and steady series of measures to narrow the scope of the death penalty. In 1988, for instance, the court outlawed the execution of prisoners who were aged 15 and younger when they committed their crimes. Three years ago, justices banned executions of the mentally retarded.

There has also been a slight decline in the overall number of executions, according to figures collated by the Death Penalty Information Centre. In 2002, there were 71 executions; in 2003 there were 65 and last year there were 59. The most executions continue to be carried out in Texas which, in 2004, executed 23 people.

A Gallup poll in October in 2004 found support for the death penalty remained at 66 per cent. That, however, was down from a high of 80 per cent in 1994.

The four justices who opposed the ban were Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor. In the dissent written by Justice Scalia he disputed that there was a clear trend of declining juvenile executions which justified a growing consensus against the practice. "The court says in so many words that what our people's laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter.

The court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards," he wrote.

In Texas Mr Beazley was trying to think of the prisoners whose lives will be spared. "The day that Napoleon's execution was [temporarily] stayed, it was the same," he said. "It was sweet for us."

EXECUTED

GERALD MITCHELL, from Houston, Texas, was executed on 22 October 2001 for the murder of 20-year-old Charles Marino. He was aged 17 at the time, and 33 when he was executed on 22 October 2001

NAPOLEON BEAZLEY was executed on 28 May, 2002. He was 17 when he killed John Luttig in Tyler, Texas, in April, 1994. Shortly after his crime, he told friends it was "the stupidest thing" he had ever done

GLEN McGINNIS was 17 when he killed Leta Wilkerson, a shop assistant, in a laundry in August 1990. He was executed by lethal injection on 25 January 2000 in Huntsville, Texas

REPRIEVED

CHRISTOPHER SIMMONS, from Missouri, was 17 when he was arrested for the murder of Shirley Crook in 1993, and had been due for execution in 2002. His was the case heard yesterday

ANZEL JONES, from Texas, was 17 when he was arrested for the 1995 murder of two women in their home. He was scheduled for execution last April but granted a stay of execution pending the Simmons decision

EDWARD CAPETILLO, from Texas, was 17 when he was arrested for the murder in January 1995 of Kimberly Williamson. He too was granted a stay of execution pending the Simmons verdict

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