A FRAIL, grey-haired great-grandmother
will be taken from her cell on Texas's death
row next Thursday to a chamber where onlookers
will see her strapped to a stretcher and
injected with $86 (£53) worth of lethal
Three days after her 63rd
birthday, Betty Lou Beets looks likely to
become the oldest inmate - and only the
second woman - to be executed in Texas since
the re-institution of the death penalty
She will also be the 120th
person to be executed on the watch of George
W. Bush, the Texas Governor, who has set
a record pace in disposing of those incarcerated
on death row. In the midst of the campaign
for the Republican presidential nomination,
Mr Bush finds himself assailed by the anti-death
penalty lobby, which says that he is in
danger of presiding over a miscarriage of
justice. Beets claims she was a battered
At her trial in 1985 Beets was
portrayed as a Black Widow, a cold-blooded
killer who had shot dead two husbands to
claim their life insurance. It had appeared
originally that her fifth husband, Jimmy
Beets, had drowned while out in his boat
on a lake.
Two years later, however,
acting on a tip-off, investigators found
the fireman's decomposing body in a sleeping
bag buried in the grounds of Beets's mobile
home in Gun Barrel City.
They also found
the body of Beets's fourth husband, Doyle
Wayne Barker, under the patio. Both had
gunshot wounds to the head and the jury
returned guilty verdicts.
is a more complicated version of the story.
The jury rejected Beets's claim that her
son, Robert Branson, had killed her husband
during an argument and that she had helped
to bury the body because he was on probation.
It also rejected the defence's insistence
that there was no evidence that she fired
the gun and it was not to know that Beets
subsequently would not be tried with the
murder of her fourth husband, whose death
was used to show a pattern of spousal homicide.
However, those fighting to save Beets's
life say that the crucial factor is that
the court was not told about her background.
In a letter to Mr Bush appealing for a stay
of execution, Amnesty and the National Coalition
Against Domestic Violence say that Beets
has hearing problems and is mentally handicapped,
that she was raised by a violent and alcoholic
father and a mentally ill mother and went
through a succession of abusive marriages.
She was married first at 15, became a
mother a year later and was a grandmother
at 30. All along the way, but particularly
in the last two marriages, she was battered.
Even if she killed her husband, the argument
runs, she should be spared death because
she had suffered provocation. In an interview
this week, Beets said that she could not
remember the killing, which she said took
place after a quarrel while she was getting
ready for her bath.
"We started arguing,
and after that I really don't remember much
of what happened except that my son came
in and [Jimmy] started in on him. And he
had already gotten a gun."
of the National Coalition, said: "Texas
failed to protect Betty Lou Beets when she
was being beaten by an abusive spouse. It
will be a terrible miscarriage of justice
if she is executed."
for clemency have been joined by Sister
Helen Prejean, whose non-fiction book about
a man on death row, Dead Man Walking,
was turned into a film. They point out that
in five other states the sentences of battered
women have been commuted. During the six
years that Mr Bush has been Governor, his
state has far exceeded any other in executing
its prisoners. Just one sentence has been
commuted, that of a man who was conclusively
shown to have been in a different state
at the time of the crime of which he had
There has been increased
debate about the death penalty after a decision
by the right-wing Governor of Illinois to
halt all executions in his state, because
13 people scheduled to die had turned out
to be innocent.
They included three
accused who were exonerated after a student
project showed that other men were guilty.
At least one innocent man is believed to
have died there.
This week President
Clinton said that Governors should "look
very closely" at their death penalty systems
to make sure that innocent people were not
George W. Bush, right, has made Texas
the execution capital of America. The state
is responsible for 206 of the 600-odd executions
since the death penalty was re-instituted
in the US in 1976. In his six years in office,
119 inmates have died.
He says the clemency
process is the "fail safe" and he can tell
the parole board that a case may be worth
another look. It can commute a death sentence,
but has done so only once during Mr Bush's