Amnesty International accused the United States yesterday of "contempt for international law and common standards of decency" for the planned execution this month of a convicted murderer who was a juvenile, aged 17, at the time of his crime.
Napoleon Beazley has admitted shooting dead an elderly man in a 1994 car theft. John Luttig, 63, was shot twice in the head in front of his wife at their home in Tyler, Texas. Beazley's bloody footprint was found beside Luttig's body.
However, with only a fortnight to go before Beazley is due to die by chemical injection, his lawyers are pointing out that he had no prior criminal record and demonstrated profound remorse over the killing, to the point of contemplating suicide.
The statements used by the prosecution to persuade the trial jury that he would pose a future threat to society if allowed to live were part of a plea bargain by Beazley's two friends who also took part in the theft of Luttig's Mercedes.
The two accomplices, Cedric and Donald Coleman, later recanted statements that helped the prosecution describe Beazley as an "animal", in a trial Amnesty alleges was tinged with racism. Beazley is black and his victim was not only white (as in 80% of US murder cases which lead to execution) but also the father of a federal appeal court judge, Michael Luttig, who is tipped as a possible supreme court justice. The jury was all white.
One of the prosecutors in the case, Jack Skeen, denied that the victim's race or family links had anything to do with the death penalty.
"We went in and prosecuted the triggerman. And all the evidence supports that Beazley was the triggerman," Mr Skeen said.
Amnesty and US human rights groups note that Beazley was 17 at the time of the murder. "In Texas, under 18s are considered too young to vote, drink or serve on a jury - yet the state shows no qualms in sentencing them to death," Amnesty said yesterday in a report.
While 23 states still permit the death penalty for juvenile offenders, only seven have carried out such executions in recent times.
Since resuming capital punishment in 1982 after a decade-long moratorium, Texas has put to death nine convicts who were 17 at the time of their crimes. The state currently has 31 juvenile offenders on its death row.
"In the last decade the United States has executed more juvenile offenders than all the world's nations combined," the American Bar Association (ABA) claimed in a report on the Beazley execution. The report said that only the US, Iran and Congo still executed juvenile offenders and that both Iran and Congo had shown signs of rethinking.
In 1992, when the Senate ratified the international covenant on civil and political rights, it reserved the US right to exempt itself from a clause barring the death penalty for juvenile offenders.
The ABA argued that the execution of juveniles like Beazley "runs counter to basic American standards of justice and fairness" which reserve capital punishment for the "worst of the worst" offenders.
"By their very nature, teenagers are less mature, and therefore less culpable, than adults who commit similar acts but have no such explanation for their conduct," the ABA report said.
There are signs in the US, that the mood is changing about executing juvenile offenders. After a year-long study, a bipartisan commission including prominent prosecutors and death penalty supporters issued a list of recommendations on how to reduce the number of wrongful capital convictions. One of them was to stop executing convicts who were under 18 at the time of their crime.
Beazley, who is on death row in Livingston, Texas, is unlikely to get a stay of execution in a state with a reputation for rejecting appeals for clemency or stays of execution.
"Death is inevitable," he was quoted as telling the Associated Press news agency. "It's not like it's my adversary."
Mr Skeen said: "I'm confident the jury's verdict was correct, and the death penalty was appropriate. We've done our job and the justice is being carried out."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001