political agenda is a dangerous thing. It can lead one to cross
lines that shouldn't be crossed, to descend to places one shouldn't
go. In the case of Bob Herbert's August
2 and August
6 editorials in the New York Times, the temptation was
a three-fer: (1) an opportunity to continue a longstanding crusade
against the death penalty, plus (2) a chance to yet again attack
criminal justice in (coincidentally, President Bush's) Texas, and
(3) an opening to take a pot-shot at a prominent and rising conservative
judge, Judge J. Michael Luttig. Perhaps, for Mr. Herbert, it was
clear, Mr. Herbert proceeded to lionize one Napoleon Beazley, a
convicted murderer scheduled to be executed today for the car jacking
and murder of Judge Luttig's father. Beazley is a cold-blooded predator.
His crime, which Mr. Herbert gracefully concedes was "bad enough,"
was to follow John Luttig to his home and shoot him dead as he exited
his car, and to steal that car for a one-block joyride. John Luttig's
wife, Bobbie, who watched her husband die, survived only because
she feigned death and rolled under the car, while Beazley drove
over her. Beazley's stated reason for the entire evening: He wanted
"to see what it's like to kill somebody."
For this conduct,
Beazley was sentenced to death, a fact Mr. Herbert deems a "Texas
Travesty." To be sure, he recounts a couple of alleged racist
statements by jurors or jurors' families — sentiments which have
utterly no place in a court of law or any decent society, and which
Mr. Herbert rightly decries — but Mr. Herbert presents nothing to
undermine the underlying guilt of Beazley (which Beazley himself
admits and nobody really questions). Indeed, he instead attempts
to explain away Beazley's malice, beginning one column with the
following characterization: "Mr. Beazley and two accomplices
were hijacking a Mercedes-Benz from a couple in Tyler, Tex., when
— in an apparent panic— Mr. Beazley opened fire with a .45
caliber pistol . . . ."
agenda is clear, as the italicized phrase illustrates; nothing in
the record supports any "panic," apparent or otherwise.
As the federal court of appeals recounted, Beazley told his friends
he wanted to kill somebody, he followed the Luttigs in their car
for several miles, he observed to his friends that he was "going
to have to shoot [the] driver," he followed them into their
garage, and he threw 63-year-old John Luttig to the ground, shot
him once in the side of the head, ran around the car to fire at
Bobbie Luttig, and then returned to fire another bullet at close
range into John Luttig's head.
The only possible
conduct to prompt Mr. Herbert's hypothesized "panic,"
was Luttig's opening the car door to get out, surely not a surprising
conduct after parking in one's own garage. (Mr. Herbert also includes
the gratuitous reference to the make of the car, a Mercedes-Benz
(presumably because that makes the murder less blameworthy), without
mentioning that the car was also ten years old.)
If Mr. Herbert's
columns were merely an apology for a vicious murderer, they would
not be exceptional, in his body of work or on the pages of the Times.
But Mr. Herbert goes on to attack Michael Luttig — the son of the
murdered victim — because he dared to assist the prosecution in
the case. Nationwide, 32 states have passed Victims' Rights Amendments,
and a federal amendment has wide bipartisan support, yet Mr. Herbert
finds it objectionable that here the victim's family had the temerity
to believe it should have a role in the trial. Michael Luttig loved
his father, and cared about the trial of his murderer. The fact
that he's a federal judge, on another court, in another state, should
not make a difference.
In the trial
of Beazley's two accomplices, Luttig gave a victim impact statement,
a description of what the crime had meant for him and his family.
The American Lawyer magazine reprinted that statement in
March 1995, and I challenge Mr. Herbert or anyone else to read that
statement and then assert that Michael Luttig should have remained
silent. When I first read the statement, I wept; never have I encountered
a more eloquent or powerful testament to the horrible and very real
consequences of the taking of a life or to the love a son has for
was simple. A few excerpts:
[I am here]
to represent my dad — who is not here — and his wife, and daughters.
His family, my family. More than anything else, I do this to honor
him, because if the roles were reversed, he would be standing
here today. Of this I am certain. . . .
trite in describing what follows when your husband is murdered
in your presence, when your father is stripped from your life.
. . .
. . . it's
being frightened out of your mind in the middle of the night by
a frantic banging on your door . . . one of your best friends
. . . tells you: 'Your mom just called. Father was just murdered
in the driveway of your home.' . . .
. . . it's
going down to the store where your dad had always shopped for
clothes, to buy a shirt, a tie that will match his suit, and a
package of three sets of underwear (you can only buy them in sets
of three) so your dad will look nice when he is buried. . . .
. . . it's
reading the letters from you, your sister, and your wife, that
your dad secreted away in his most private places, unbeknownst
to you. Realizing that the ones he invariably saved were the ones
that just said "thanks" or "I love you." .
. . . it's
cleaning out your dad's sock drawer, his underwear drawer, his
ties. . . .
. . . it's
reading the brochures in his top drawer about the fishing trip
you and he were to take in two months — the trip that your mother
had asked you to go on because it meant so much to your dad. .
. . . its
sitting beside your father's grave into the night in 30-degree
weather, so that he won't be alone on the first Christmas. . .
. . . it's
hearing your 2-year-old daughter ask for "Pawpaw" and
seeing your wife choke back the tears and tell her, "He's
gone now, he's in heaven."
When we were
children our mothers all told us never to speak ill of the dead.
Surely that is true all the more so for the grieving family of the
murdered. To be sure, we all have political axes to grind, and Mr.
Herbert no doubt feels strongly about his, but that's no reason
to forget our "sense of decency," as Joseph Welch famously
put it, and go after the loved ones of those who met an untimely
and violent death.