A Texas man who committed murder when he was 17 won a rare stay of execution Wednesday from a state court, just hours before he was to be put to death in a case that stirred fresh criticism of capital punishment in the United States and Texas in particular.
Napoleon Beazley, now 25, was stunned into silence, then broke out in a smile when told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wanted time to study his lawyer's appeals questioning the legality of executing someone who was not an adult at the time of his crime.
"He sat on his bunk and stopped writing. Chaplain Jim Brazzil asked him if he was okay and he said, 'Yes, I'm fine, I just have to comprehend this, give me a second,'" Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Larry Todd told reporters gathered beneath the red-brick Walls prison unit in downtown Huntsville, where Texas operates the nation's most active death chamber.
"We gave him five or six minutes, then went back to talk to him and asked him if he was okay. He broke out in a smile and said 'Yes,'" Todd said.
The former student body president and high school football star from tiny Grapeland, Texas, was solemnly writing out his final statement when he got news of the stay three hours before he was to receive a lethal injection, Todd said.
"Applicant is granted a stay of execution pending further orders by this court," the court's two-page order read. "The applicant presents 10 allegations challenging the validity of his conviction and resulting sentence."
Beazley's attorney, Walter Long, expressed relief.
"It was absolutely the right thing to happen," he said. "But it is an ongoing battle and tomorrow is a new day and a new battle."
Prosecutor Jack Skeen said he was disappointed by the ruling.
"We still hold the execution is proper and the just sentence in this case," he said.
Beazley is to be returned to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit, Todd said.
Beazley never denied his role in the slaying, but his appeal to the state court listed 10 reasons for a reprieve, including constitutional claims, allegations of false testimony, jury bias and his age at the time of the killing.
The state Attorney General's office opposed the motion; many of the arguments have been made in earlier appeals and rejected by the courts.
Beazley still has an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a broader review of his case, including whether the Constitution bars executing people who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.
Gov. Rick Perry also could issue a reprieve.
The case has drawn international attention and put the Supreme Court in an unusual position. The victim's son, Judge J. Michael Luttig of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has ties to three of the justices.
Luttig clerked for Antonin Scalia and advised Clarence Thomas and David Souter during their confirmation hearings. They did not participate earlier this week when thcourt refused to halt the execution in a 3-3 vote, with three abstentions.
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.
In Texas, a capital murder committed at age 17 makes an offender eligible for the death penalty. In a 1989 ruling on a case from Kentucky, the high court said death sentences for defendants as young as 16 were constitutional.
Beazley was convicted of murdering John Luttig, a prominent businessman.
Luttig, 63, and his wife were returning home when the slaying occurred in front of their house.
Testimony at Beazley's trial showed he stood in a pool of blood while going through Luttig's pockets, searching for the car keys. He abandoned the car a short distance away after hitting a wall, damaging the vehicle. Beazley also fired at the victim's wife. He missed, but she played dead while her husband lay beside her.
"The acts of Napoleon Beazley that night were a predatory hunt-down," Skeen has said.
Beazley, a football star at Grapeland High and the senior class president, acknowledged a darker side driven by "peer pressure." He sold small amounts of cocaine and carried a pistol. The night of the murder, he had a sawed-off shotgun in his car.
"I'm a different person now," he said in a recent interview. "You come here and you grow. I was a different person then."
Death penalty opponents from around the world have inundated Skeen with letters and cards protesting the execution. The European Union, through the Belgian Embassy in Washington, has urged Perry to stop the execution. The governor, however, has refused to halt any of the 11 other executions in Texas since he took office last year.
Amnesty International, using the Beazley case as a springboard, issued a report critical of the United States and Texas, in particular, for allowing executions in such cases.
"We are still calling on all the authorities to stop this execution and to stop execution of children in this country," Sue Gunawardena-Baughn, an Amnesty International director.
Before the court's ruling, Perry said he still supports the law allowing 17-year-olds to be sentenced to death.
"My son's 17, and I am comfortable that my son understands right from wrong," he said.
Later, Perry declined comment on the ruling. "It's still before the courts," said his spokesman, Gene Acuna.
In June, the state court temporarily halted another execution. The man was executed last week.
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