Texas execution shows Bush's limited role

The Lone Star State, wary of executive clout, gives its governor little authority to pardon.

To prosecutors and former neighbors in Gun Barrel City, Texas, she's known as the "black widow," a great- grandmother who shot and killed two of her five husbands and buried them in her yard.

To her family and supporters, she's a victim of childhood rape and spousal abuse who should receive clemency on the basis of "battered women's syndrome."

Tonight Betty Lou Beets may become the next inmate to be executed in the state - the 120th during the five-year tenure of Gov. George W. Bush.

Mr. Bush's presidential bid is focusing more scrutiny on his death-penalty decisions, particularly because he has signed more executions than any other governor. Mrs. Beets's case is a particularly delicate one. Her lawyers say she was overlooked by a 1991 law that called for the parole board to review punishments in murder cases involving battered women.

Bush reminded reporters this week that Texas law only allows the governor to commute a sentence on the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which denied Beets's request for clemency Tuesday.

"The governor appoints capable and qualified people [to the parole board] and trusts them to make the best decisions for Texas," says Linda Edwards, Bush's spokeswoman in Austin. "That's his style of governing."

Unlike many states, where a governor's call can mean the difference between an inmate's life or death, Texas gives the governor only the power to grant a one-time 30-day stay of execution to allow further review. It's a reflection of the state's longtime distrust of executive power.

But while legal experts say Bush's assertions of limited clemency powers are factually true, some critics note they are also politically opportune, allowing Bush to avoid weighing in on highly emotional cases.

"Bush is essentially accurate in describing his role in the clemency process," says Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "But from a political standpoint, his entire attitude was to be hands off. He hasn't used the power that he has."

That power is to prod the parole board, whose 18 members he appointed, to give special consideration to certain cases he deems important. In 1998, Bush urged the board to give careful consideration to Henry Lee Lucas, whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison when evidence showed he was innocent of the murder that put him on death row.

Such informal arm-twisting may be uncommon now, but it's a power Texas governors have used in the past, Steiker says. From 1925 to 1972, nearly 20 percent of clemency applicants had their sentences commuted.

Bush, a strong supporter of the death penalty, has been loath to step in unless a case passes one of two tests: evidence of innocence or a clear violation of a defendant's right to a fair trial. One famous inmate who failed to pass this standard was Karla Faye Tucker, a pick-axe murderer from Houston who in 1998 became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

"This is so central to George Bush's campaign of personal responsibility," says Robert Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University in Houston. "The two reasons for clemency are that they are not responsible for their acts or that they are not guilty. If he can't pardon Karla Faye Tucker, I don't see how he can pardon this person."

For her part, Beets neither accepts nor denies her guilt in the 1983 murder of her husband, Jimmy Don Beets, who was found buried under a wishing well. She says she simply can't remember. Prosecutors charged her with capital murder, arguing that Beets killed her husband to receive more than $110,000 in life insurance and pension funds.

Charges were never filed against Mrs. Beets in the murder of her fourth husband, Doyle Barker, who was found buried under a patio, but she was convicted of a misdemeanor for shooting and wounding yet another spouse - husband No. 2.

Beets's current attorney, Joe Margulies, argues that Beets never received a fair trial.

For one thing, her former attorney, Ray Andrews, who was later convicted and disbarred for soliciting a bribe, has subsequently admitted that Beets didn't know about her husband's insurance policies until Andrews told her - wiping out Beets's motive of murder for remuneration.

For another, Beets never received notice from the Board of Pardons that she qualified for an appeal based on a new state law allowing a "battered women's defense."

"I think it's fair to say the fundamental point of this case is the way the entire system broke down," says Mr. Margulies. "I don't think that anybody in the state of Texas should say that 'Boy, I'm proud of the way Mrs. Beets was represented.' "

While critics consider battered women's syndrome a dubious defense, Beets's supporters said she had deserved at least a stay of execution for courts to consider the mitigating circumstances of her troubled childhood and her marriages to often violent men.

"When you have been tortured and abused by a person that way for so long, you make decisions differently," says Sarah Buel, co-director at the University of Texas' Domestic Violence Clinic. "That's not to say that it's the right thing to do. We're just saying she shouldn't be put to death."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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