Too young to die

Posted: Jun 03, 2002 12:00 AM
You can't hear it in the tape, but when I brought up the death penalty during an interview with candidate George W. Bush in June 2000, the light went out of his eyes. He'd been animated and thoughtful while discussing his education agenda. He didn't welcome the issue on which national media had been hammering him for weeks. The death penalty -- especially for inmates who committed murder before they turned 18 -- had been the subject of daily national news stories. Last week, Napoleon Beazley -- who was 17 when he shot and killed 63-year-old John Luttig during a 1994 carjacking -- was executed. Since there was no presidential election to turn him into a political football, there was little coverage of the event. Beazley's bad luck. If this were an election year, he'd have become a household name. In his final written statement, Beazley, 25, acknowledged, "The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was senseless." Beazley also said he was disappointed in a system "so much like me when I made the same shameful mistake." I brought up Beazley's case with Bush during that June 2000 interview. Bush was unfamiliar with his case, but he did talk about Texas law, which allows the execution of murderers age 17 or older. "That's the decision we made," Bush explained. "It's 17. I think we need to send a clear signal that there is a consequence for murder." Bush added that the juries "didn't have to" sentence minors to death, the implication being that there undoubtedly were circumstances that moved jurors to go for the ultimate penalty. Would Bush consider supporting a law to raise the Texas death penalty age to 18? "You know, I don't think so," he answered. "But I'm open-minded. I'd listen." The tone of critics isn't likely to keep his mind open. Amnesty International is outraged. A press release explained that the execution revealed American "hypocrisy" -- because the United States says it supports human rights. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had written to the Texas Board of Prisons and Paroles, "I am astounded that Texas and a few other states in the United States take children from their families and execute them." He'd have had a better point if the "children" hadn't killed family members. Ray Sullivan, spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, noted that Beazley was no innocent child. Beazley, Sullivan noted, "had been selling cocaine for a number of years and was driving around that day with a pistol and a shotgun, and then murdered someone in cold blood as part of a carjacking. He had full access to the courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles." That board voted 10 to 7 against commuting Beazley's death sentence to life in prison. Perry refused to grant Beazley a 30-day reprieve. Sullivan also noted that Beazley was months from his 18th birthday. Why should a few months spell the difference between life and death? Because the state has to draw a line somewhere, and the best place to draw it is the age of official adulthood, not the in-between age of 17, where Texas drew its line. Besides, the government allows a few months to determine whether a teen-ager can vote, or buy a beer. America has given legal force to the notion of childhood -- and that's why I oppose kiddie executions. Americans are duly appalled when Palestinian youths decide to kill other people by blowing up themselves. We recognize an age when teen-agers do not understand the full consequences of their actions. It's sickening that they kill others, and sickening that they kill themselves. It may not make sense that a teen can be old enough to kill, but too young to die. It makes less sense, however, to execute men for what they did as boys, when the law wouldn't even let them buy cigarettes.