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Bettie Lou Beets, Execution #120

by Donna Ladd

about Bettie Lou Beets
Mary Robinson, 55, became a full-time, high-tech death-penalty opponent on Jan. 24 when she heard that the state of Texas had scheduled the execution of a 62-year-old great-grandmother, Betty Lou Beets. Robinson, now of Austin, Texas, was already a women's prison advocate -- she needed something to do when her kids went to college -- but Beets is the first life she is fighting to save.

"This is my first time with a friend," Robinson said of Beets' impending execution.

When she heard that Beets' execution date had been set for Feb. 24, Robinson immediately sent off a firestorm of e-mail alerts that has drawn national media attention to the case. The case even made it to the index page of Bostonian Zack Exley's infamous parody site of George W. Bush's presidential campaign. "Here's how we do 'em down in Texas. An execution nearly every week during the primaries will help teach America about compassionate conservatism," the site trumpets sarcastically.

Robinson's action also drew the immediate response of Amnesty International, which forwarded it to Ellen Moore, who runs Amnesty's Urgent Action Office in Nederland, Colo. Moore rushed out an e-mail and fax alert asking anti-death-penalty activists nationwide to speak out on Beets' behalf. Moore said last week, however, that she doesn't have much hope of overcoming Texas' execution approach in time to save Beets' life. "It's dismaying that Texas appears to be trying to make itself stand out as the death-penalty state," she said.

This flurry of activity is probably too late for Beets. The U.S. Supreme court turned down her appeal in late January. Now it's up to Bush and the state of Texas to stop the lethal injection -- a scenario as likely as seeing a snowmobile racing down Interstate 10. Executions in Texas -- which even have their own web page -- have skyrocketed under Bush -- 119 since he took office in 1995 (206 people executed there since 1982). Bush once authorized two executions in one day, and refused to bow to public pressure to save Karla Faye Tucker in 1998. Even during the heated presidential primary season, Texas has averaged an execution a week, even killing a schizophrenic man and two others who committed their crimes when they were 17.

But Robinson keeps trying.

Sister Helen's Influence
Robinson and Beets have been friends for nearly two years, since Robinson moved to Austin from Washington state, where she had spent 18 months volunteering at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. There, she had worked with the inmates to create a magazine of their writings, "Creative Expressions." She had also discovered the work of Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, which turned her against the death penalty forever.

"It may be corny," Robinson said, referring to the powerful effect Prejean's work had on her life. "But what can I say? It's the truth."

After Robinson's husband retired, the couple sold their home, bought an RV and pointed it toward Texas. Why? "He was here for the fishing and [I] was here for the death penalty."

Robinson arrived in Texas just as Karla Faye Tucker was about to be executed for helping kill two men in a robbery for motorcycle parts. A somber candlelight vigil in Tucker's honor completed the transformation Prejean's book had started. After the death of Tucker -- whom she never met -- Robinson decided to get to know the nine women on death row in Texas. She got their names and addresses and wrote to them, offering to be their pen pal. "They all wrote back," she said.

And they kept writing. Although Texas prisoners are not allowed access to computers and the Internet, Robinson wanted their work published online so the world could get to know the women that society was about to kill. "My daughter and her boyfriend in San Diego got me started with the Web site []," Robinson said. "I'd dreamed of a national prison journal for women. The next best thing was putting what we had online."

The prisoners write their stories and send them to Robinson, who then types or scans them for posting. She also prints out copies for the women, most of whom have never seen a Web site.

"My warrior-woman friend Pamela Perillo could only imagine computers, the Internet or Web pages," Robinson said. "She stopped me mid-conversation once and asked me what a mouse is. Try describing point-and-click to a woman in prison for 20 years."

On the site, Robinson details death-row abuse, posts form clemency letters to send to "big shots," and gives a voice to women like Cathy Henderson, Erica Sheppard, Brittany Holberg, Perillo and Beets. They tell their stories, many of which detail the abuse in their lives, both before and during prison.

Beets, For Better and Worse
Five links on the site tell the story of Beets' life though her eyes. "As I went from one abusive relationship to another," Beets writes, "each one seemed to get worse. Sometimes I felt like they all must have read the same book or else men all have the same make-up. Of course I knew this was not true. When the abusive side comes out, we want to believe them that they are sorry. We forgive and look forward to that nice side again."

Those gentle words are matched by Beets' appearance: She is diminutive, has soft-gray curls and hearing aids in both ears. Robinson stresses that Beets is a victim of life-long abuse, she has brain damage and her attorney was incompetent and sought to profit off her case's publicity.

Yet the facts of Beets' case are harsh. She was convicted of killing her fifth husband, Jimmy Don Beets, with a gunshot wound to the head in 1983. She is believed to have murdered Doyle Wayne Barker, her fourth husband, the same way. The bones of both men were found buried in her yard, a fact that earned her the nickname "Black Widow" in Texas. Both men's children want her dead.

Whether or not she killed her husbands -- Beets maintains that she did not -- she should not be executed this month, Robinson said, adding that she feels shame and humiliation living in a state and country that is going ahead with "human sacrifice."

Another Black Mark for Bush
Zach Exley agrees, saying the execution is another black mark on Bush's record. He says he chose to post details of this case -- he gets hundreds of anti-Bush e-mails a day -- to try to help Robinson draw attention to the atrocity about to be committed by Texas. "Even if you believe in the death penalty -- I don't -- most people would agree that this is a case that needs to be looked at again," he said in an interview.

But Bush won't take another look, Exley predicts. "I know that he (Bush) has been killing people like crazy in Texas. I thought that people that got the death penalty were people who killed like 10 people, contract killers, mobsters. I'm naive: I didn't realize that a woman with brain damage who's been abused all her life and decided to kill the last two would be put to death."

As Beets awaits her fate -- a ticker on Robinson's site shows the days, hours and minutes she has left -- Robinson keeps up her campaign. This week she appeared on her first news broadcast in Texas to talk about Betty. Ironically, Robinson admitted just before the appearance, "Betty is the one person I don't want to talk about. I'm afraid I'll bust out crying."

Robinson, who openly admits she's new to the activist game, also recently crashed a press conference on the capitol steps in Austin. "I made Betty posters to wear," she described later via e-mail. "Cameras trained on them. Good deal. I'm learning."

Most poignantly, Robinson decided to use an e-mail address she had been hoarding for the right moment: Sister Helen Prejean's. She wrote the nun asking her to come meet with Beets and then talk to the "locked-out" press. (Texas is only allowing larger media outlets access to Beets.) Prejean was on a plane within two days, meeting with Beets and later her supporters. "I just saw her; that was so neat," Robinson said the next day.

Like Prejean, Robinson says she is dedicated to fighting the death penalty over the long haul, and she is using the Beets' crusade as a "template" for what to do and not to do in the future. She added that Beets is "at peace" with her fate -- and wants to use her remaining days to champion the cause of battered women.

Exley, who has found himself in the middle of a new high-tech community since taking on Bush online last year, says activists like Robinson can use the Internet to have the same access to big media as anyone else, even the Bush campaign.

It's about coordination with other activists, Exley says, and being a bit ruthless in taking advantage of other news events. For example, Illinois Gov. George Ryan's (R) new moratorium on the death penalty would make a good excuse to hold a large press conference or flood the media with targeted press releases.

Exley admires Robinson's effort on Beets' case, and he is trying to help her spread the word in the days that Beets has left. "With Bush, we have an opportunity to show the guy calling himself a compassionate conservative killing this abused woman five days after the South Carolina primary. That makes the Betty Beets case a hundred times more newsworthy -- and maybe we still have an opportunity to save her life."

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Albion Monitor February 21, 2000 (

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