Published on Sunday, February 20, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Hopes Waning For Texas Great-Grandmother On Death Row
by Lynda Gorov
GATESVILLE, Texas - Days away from execution, Bettie Lou Beets has been encouraged to talk, to sit behind a plexiglass-and-steel mesh screen and dredge up a lifetime of rapes and beatings and other abuse that she says should have convinced a jury she doesn't belong on death row.
With the clock ticking down to 6 p.m. Thursday, her advocates understand the importance of national attention, particularly in a state whose governor aspires to be president of the United States. Maybe, just maybe, the TV cameras and reporters' notebooks can help keep her alive.
But Beets is a reluctant death row celebrity. The great-grandmother and convicted husband killer says the retelling is painful. She is a frail, 62-year-old with smooth pink skin, soft salt-and-pepper hair, and a sad, gap-toothed smile. Unlike some other death row inmates, she hasn't tried to become a household name, and she hasn't become one.
''Sometimes I feel just like a broken record,'' Beets said Thursday, in what she decided would be her final interview. ''It does help, really it does. It's something I need to do. But it's just so hard.''
Beets, convicted of killing her fifth husband for insurance money and indicted but never tried on charges of murdering her fourth, says she has begun speaking out to help other battered women as much as save herself.
But as some of Beets's advocates concede, her refusal to repent for a murder of which she says she has no memory has hardly helped her win widespread support. Even death row has its politics, and the particulars of her crime are not as tidy as the public might like.
''Everyone likes the good battered woman who has been a victim of one man and didn't fight back,'' said Dr. Lenore Walker, a clinical psychologist who examined Beets in 1989 and testified to her victimization.
''This woman fought back and maybe didn't use the best judgment. It's easier to think of her as a black widow rather than a victim with limited options.''
Beets's lawyers are not seeking her release or using a history of abuse to excuse murder. Instead, they are asking that she spend the rest of her life in prison. They argue that her injuries should have been introduced as a mitigating factor during her four-day trial in 1985, which could have spared her the death penalty.
They also allege incompetence, even malfeasance, by her defense lawyer at the time.
As Joe Margulies, one of her current attorneys, put it: ''The cases of women who have endured years of harrowing abuse have to be looked at through a different prism. Is this the picture we want of women on death row?''
But Beets's clemency application has failed to stir much passion on either side of the death penalty debate, leaving her supporters to worry that Americans in general and Texans in particular have been numbed by the swift pace of executions.
Texas has held more than 110 of them since George W. Bush became governor in 1995, by far the most of any state. For a death row inmate, the Texas governor can issue only a one-time, 30-day stay of execution, something Bush has never done.
There is little visible pressure for Bush to do so now. As the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considers whether to recommend commuting her sentence to life in prison, only 215 letters concerning Beets have been tallied by the governor's office. That compares with the 10,217 received before Karla Faye Tucker in 1998 became the first woman put to death in Texas in more than a century. Beets would be the second woman in Texas and the fourth nationwide to be executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1979.
''Clearly Karla Faye Tucker had a huge press machine working for her,'' said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based group that advocates for victims' rights. ''The propaganda being distributed by her and her supporters was immense, so we felt compelled to respond. Bettie Lou Beets has not become a cause celebre.''
About a week ago, Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun made famous by the movie ''Dead Man Walking,'' did stop in the state capital of Austin, about 120 miles southeast of the state prison in Gatesville, to attend a rally for Beets and ask for mercy. Groups advocating for battered women have issued pleas of their own. But time is running out.
Beets's conviction was for the 1983 murder of a former Dallas firefighter named Jimmy Don Beets. Her lawyers said her husband did not beat her, but ''sexually humiliated'' her. He was found buried in the yard of their trailer home outside Gun Barrel City, under a wishing well and near the body of her fourth husband, Doyle Wayne Baker, who allegedly beat her before his disappearance in 1981. Both men had been shot in the back of the head.
She also shot a third husband, Bill Lane, who survived his wounds but later died of unrelated causes. That attack resulted only in misdemeanor charges and a small fine, which advocates offer as proof that law enforcement officials believed she was defending herself.
In her prison interview, Beets speaks in a half-whisper that is partly the result of natural shyness, mostly the result of a childhood bout with measles that left her partially deaf. With no claim to innocence or admission of guilt, she insists she does not deserve to die.
Beets, a ninth-grade dropout who went on to earn her high-school equivalency diploma from prison, says she had nothing to do with Baker's death. She also says she cannot remember the details of the night her last husband died, beyond an argument he was having with her son.
Walker says she believes Beets went into a disassociative state, a sort of survival technique developed subconsciously during the decades of abuse that allegedly began with being raped by her father when Beets was 5.
''Being abused just seemed like something that happened to me all the time, like something I couldn't get out of,'' Beets said in the interview, her eyes filling with tears until she couldn't stop them from running down her cheeks. ''I tried to get help. But nobody helped me ...
''In my heart, I think I didn't do it,'' she added when asked if, given her memory loss, she ever considered the possibility that she might have killed her husband. ''I don't know what happened. Some people might find that hard to believe, but I was in a car accident in 1980, and I don't remember that either.''
That near-fatal accident, according to Beets's attorneys, resulted in organic brain damage - another mitigating circumstance that was never raised at trial. Most corrosive of all, they say, was her defense attorney's refusal to step down from the case in order testify that Beets could not have killed her husband for the life insurance. According to her lawyers, Beets did not know she had a claim until the defense attorney told her later, when she went to see him about another, unrelated insurance claim.
But with a potential movie or book deal looming, they add, the defense attorney had financial incentive to stay on the case, which enabled the jury to convict her of murder for capital gain and sentence her to death.
''I had no idea what was going on'' at the trial, said Beets, who claims she was left uninformed about every aspect of her case and could not even hear most of her own trial.
Beets's daughter and son testified against her. In interviews with Texas newspapers, the adult children of the fourth and fifth husbands have rebutted claims that their fathers were the monsters Beets has made them out to be.
Witnesses to the massive search that began after she reported her last husband missing, possibly at a lake where he often fished, have raised anew reports that she showed up at the dock in full makeup, with her hair done, and displaying no emotion.
''It's not easy to empathize, and of course the media has portrayed her as the black widow, when the black-and-blue widow is more appropriate,'' said Mark Warren, who, as USA coordinator for the Canadian section of Amnesty International, is working to raise awareness of Beets's case. ''But whether she did do this crime or did not do this crime, the large queston is whether the state of Texas will execute a battered woman without considering the shocking story of her life.''
The board of pardons, her lawyers say, should have considered her life story under a 1991 resolution that called for the review of all cases involving battered spouses. The board has never explained why the review did not take place, although the Houston Chronicle reported that such a review has been undertaken.
A commutation by the board, whose members are appointed by the governor, could help Bush deflect claims that Texas is overzealous in meting out the death penalty. The board, however, has commuted only one death sentence that chairman Gerald Garrett could recall. A decision on Beets could come on Tuesday.
''Innocence is always tidier; I'm not arguing her innocence,'' said Mary Robinson, who lives in Austin and has befriended many of the nine women now on death row in Texas. ''I am not saying let her out of prison; I am saying let her live.''
For her part, Beets has been spending what may be her final days meeting with her lawyers and finishing the items that she knitted and crocheted to earn extra money in prison. Without any irony, she says she has never felt safer than she has in prison, away from the men who hurt her. She also says she is sorry for the hurt her stepsons feel at the loss of their fathers, even if she is not responsible for it.
''I know how it feels to lose someone, because I lost a grandmother, a mother, a child, my [grown son in a car accident], while I was in here,'' said Beets, proudly noting through tears that her son's organs were donated to people in need. ''Killing me will do no good. There will just be someone else's grandmother, someone's mother, someone's child being killed. It will just extend the cycle.''
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.