Texas case offers glimpse into Supreme Court’s life and death decisions
WASHINGTON (AP) – Just three of the nine Supreme Court justices voted to go forward with the execution of Napoleon Beazley. But in a case that lifted the veil from votes normally hidden, that will probably be enough to seal the Texan’s fate.
The unusual case underscores continuing conflicts among the justices over their role as judges of last resort for some 70 or 80 condemned people a year.
Beazley’s case fractured the court 3-3-3 – three votes for a reprieve, three to go forward with the execution and three abstentions by justices with connections to the victim’s family. Under Supreme Court rules, a tie vote means the request for a reprieve is denied.
Beazley is to die Wednesday evening for shooting a man to death during a botched carjacking in 1994. Beazley also fired at the victim’s wife, who played dead while her husband lay beside her on their driveway.
Unless the Texas governor steps in – or the Supreme Court does, on broader grounds than its Monday rejection – the execution will proceed.
The court’s three-paragraph order on Monday showed how each justice voted. Emergency requests for reprieves are typically denied in brief orders that do not reveal the votes. When all justices are voting, it takes five to grant a reprieve, four to agree to hear a case.
Justices John Paul Stevens, the most vocal dissenter in past death penalty cases, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer went on record supporting the stay.
In a sharply worded speech earlier this year, Ginsburg criticized the quality of legal help offered to those facing the death penalty. Breyer has told French radio the use of DNA evidence to overturn some death sentences may eventually change American minds on whether the punishment is appropriate.
By process of subtraction, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and fellow death penalty supporters Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor must have voted to let the execution go ahead.
O’Connor raised eyebrows last month when she said she has reservations about the way the death penalty is applied in the United States, but she did not say she would vote any differently on upcoming cases.
The court has accepted two death row appeals for the coming term, although one may be dropped.
On Monday, the court acted on Beazley’s request for a stay of his execution. In a somewhat unusual move, the court did not simultaneously announce its decision on whether to hear Beazley’s wider appeal.
It is still possible for the court to accept the case, although lawyers said that was unlikely. The court is not obliged to act before the scheduled execution.
Also unusual in this case was the personal connection to court members.
Beazley’s victim was the father of a prominent federal judge who once served as a law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and helped prepare Justices David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas for their Senate confirmation hearings. Presumably because of those connections, Scalia, Souter and Thomas recused themselves from the case.
Lawyers who follow death penalty cases said they could not recall an instance where an execution went ahead on the strength of so few votes, although there has been at least one other case where the vote was 4-4.
”There are so many problems with this case that I was hopeful that the Supreme Court would have taken the time, more time, to weigh the evidence a little bit,” said Anne James, an American University professor and death penalty opponent who worked on the Beazley case.
Ronald Tabak, a New York lawyer who worked on the case for the American Bar Association, said, ”I would think that if we’re going to have the death penalty, a good case could be made that where there’s this much confusion and division … that even people who favor the death penalty should have real serious questions about carrying it forward.”
The ABA has asked for clemency for Beazley, now 25, because he was 17 when he committed the crime. The ABA has no position on the death penalty in general but opposes it for anyone under 18 and for the mentally retarded.
Texas allows the death penalty for killings committed at 17, and some states allow the punishment for killers who were 16. The United States is nearly alone in the world in that regard. More than 15 international organizations have protested Beazley’s scheduled lethal injection.
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