Teen murderer searches for fairness in court
Texas set to execute man who killed as a minor, just weeks after it granted a stay to another teen murderer.
HOUSTON — They were both 17 when they committed murder. They were both African-Americans convicted by all-white juries. And they were both sentenced to death in the state of Texas.
But one, Napoleon Beazley, ignited a national firestorm of controversy around his August execution, so much so that - in a rare move - the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay while considering his age and other factors in the case.
The same court last week denied the appeal of the other, Gerald Mitchell, who sits in a sterile cell quietly contemplating his execution scheduled for tonight. The juxtaposition of the cases, and their disparate handling by both the courts and death-penalty opponents, raises significant questions about whether justice is being administered with an even hand. Beyond that, though, is a broader question of whether it is legally or morally right to execute those who commit crimes as juveniles.
Granted, there are significant differences in the details. But human rights activists - who admit they haven't spent as much time on Mr. Mitchell's case - say the underlying issue is the same. Juveniles should not get the death penalty.
What they don't say is that Mitchell's case is simply not as compelling. When he killed two people in a drug deal in 1985, Mitchell already had a long and violent record. Beazley, on the other hand, was a star athlete and president of his high-school class. He hadn't been in trouble before murdering the father of a federal judge for his car and, since then, he has been a model prisoner.
"The fact is, Napoleon Beazley was the poster child for why juveniles should not be executed," says Ellen Marrus, a law professor at the University of Houston and director of the Southwest Regional Juvenile Defender Center. "But the details of Gerald's case do not make [his execution] any less outrageous."
She says studies show that juveniles are still developing morally, emotionally, and intellectually at age 17, and can be more easily rehabilitated than adults.
That may be where Mitchell's case stands out. Far from his wild days on the streets, Mitchell now spends his time studying the Bible, writing music and poetry, and eloquently speaking of his struggle "to kill off the character that has done so much wrong to so many people."
But most of these life changes are going unnoticed - even among death-penalty opponents. The prison in Huntsville, home to the nation's busiest execution chamber, says it has received few inquiries about Mitchell. Letter-writing campaigns are nonexistent, and prayer vigils consist of a few staunch death-penalty opponents. "We were a little more adamant in Beazley's case than in this one," admits Nancy Kremers, Amnesty International's antideath-penalty coordinator in Houston.
She says there are many reasons for the unequal attention, reasons that go beyond the character of both juvenile offenders. Beazley's case was more complex, with questions about legal representation and racism. And the US has been thrown into war since Beazley's case made national headlines.
But the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says it is still charging ahead, fighting to make sure each case is highlighted. The problem is getting someone to listen, says president Rick Halperin. "This country is facing numerous serious social issues right now, but we almost don't get any news unrelated to the Sept. 11 attacks," he says.
Death-penalty advocates agree that timing and world events are at issue in Mitchell's case, but believe it's as unworthy of attention as Beazley's.
"We do not execute juveniles. We execute convicted capital murderers," says Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a national victims-advocate association based in Houston. "And here in the state of Texas, a 17-year-old is eligible for the death penalty."
Nor is Texas alone in executing people who committed crimes as juveniles; 23 of the 38 capital-murder states allow it. In fact, 85 people sitting on death row around the US committed the crimes that put them there as minors.But on an international level, the US is almost the only country that still executes those who commit crimes as minors. In fact, besides the US, only Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have held such executions in the past three years - and both countries now say they will no longer engage in the practice.
Death-penalty opponents say it's time the US joined the rest of the world. They say that Congress has continued to sidestep international pressure on the issue by not ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids countries from killing those who commit crimes as juveniles.
"How can the US ask countries like South Africa, Afghanistan, and China to enforce international law, if we ignore it ourselves?" asks Tom Moran, a lawyer working on the Mitchell appeal. In a petition to the US Supreme Court last week, Mr. Moran wrote about the court's acknowledgment for more than a century that the US is bound by customary international law. "We're asking the court to say that international law simply forbids" the practice.
The issue was last considered by the US Supreme Court in 1989. It ruled that executing people 16 and older who committed crimes as juveniles did not violate the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the Eighth Amendment, and that a national consensus against such executions had not developed.
Since that time, only three states have banned the practice. But at least eight states are currently considering legislation that would ban such executions. And in a recent study by the Houston Chronicle, one-quarter of those surveyed said they favored putting juveniles to death.
Statistics are irrelevant to Marsha Mitchell, who feels guilty that she didn't look after her kid brother more closely when he was growing up. She says she is grateful that not a lot of attention has been paid to her brother's case. "The more publicity there is, the more it seems people turn against you," she says, quietly. "It's easier to deal with when it's more low key. I don't know what to say; I don't want my brother to die."