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Breaking News

Texas Authorities Prepare to Execute Betty Lou Beets; Bush, Supreme Court Refuse to Delay Execution

Aired February 24, 2000 - 6:57 p.m. ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, I am Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Texas authorities are set to execute a 62-year-old woman by injection in the coming minutes. Convicted killer Betty Lou Beets will only be the fourth woman executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated back in 1976.

Just a short while ago, Texas Governor George W. Bush refused to delay the execution, and the Supreme Court also refused her a stay of execution.

CNN has several correspondents on this story. Charles Zewe is outside the prison in Huntsville, Texas; Patty Davis is in Austin, where she's following Governor Bush; and our legal analyst Greta Van Susteren is here in Washington.

We begin by going to the prison grounds and Charles Zewe -- Charles.

CHARLES ZEWE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's all beginning to happen now, something that has happened 207 times since the state resumed executions in 1982. Betty Lou Beets strapped down to a gurney at this hour according to the sequence of what takes place in these executions. Just a little while ago, in fact just a couple of minutes ago, the victim's relatives, his sons and also his sister walked inside the Walls unit here of the Huntsville Prison to witness the execution. They were followed shortly thereafter by a set of reporter witnesses. The state also has witness on hand.

Beets strapped to the gurney after all of her appealed fails. She has contended through appeals for years now -- and particularly intense appeals in the last year -- that she should have been spared because she's a battered woman.


BEETS: And then he drug me by my feet.

ZEWE (voice-over): Betty Lou Beets was sentenced to die for the 1983 murder of her fifth husband, Jimmy Don Beets, a Dallas firefighter, killed, prosecutors argued, for his life insurance and pension money. She was also accused but not tried for killing her fourth husband in 1981. The bodies of both men were found buried in the yard of Beets's mobile home, both shot in the head.

Beets says she doesn't know how her husband was killed.

BEETS: I wouldn't willingly do that, but I don't remember what happened then. I just don't remember what all happened then. It's just a blank to me.

ZEWE: The 62-year-old great grandmother asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency, contending she had been abused by all five of her husbands.

BEETS: It's humiliating, and I have no defense.

ZEWE: On Tuesday, the parole board denied her clemency request. Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush can grant Beets a one-time 30-day reprieve. During Governor Bush's tenure there have been 120 executions in Texas and he has never gone against the advice of his parole board which he appoints.

FAYE LANE, BETTY LOU BEETS' DAUGHTER: I'm not saying that my mother should go free, but to be allowed to live throughout her remaining years in prison.

ZEWE: Only one other woman has been executed in Texas since the Civil War. In 1998, repented pick axe murderer Carla Faye Tucker received worldwide media attention when she was put to death. This time, death penalty opponents say Bush's decision on whether to delay Beets' execution will help define what he calls compassionate conservatism. Governor Bush says what's at stake is upholding the law of the land.


ZEWE: In fact, in the statement just a little while ago Governor Bush through his office issued a statement saying he agreed with the verdict of the jury that Betty Lou Beets is guilty of murder and he refused to issue a 30-day stay, which was his right to do if he chose to do that, there was some question in his mind.

Now just a few minutes ago, the victims' relatives, as I said earlier, went inside the Walls unit. Those relatives included the son. James Don Beets, the son of Betty Lou Beets's fifth husband, who was -- she was convicted of murdering, found buried along with the body of her fourth husband, who was also murdered. She was charged with that but never tried. She was strongly suspected of having killed Beets for his insurance money and his pension money.

What's happening right now is clinical and quick. She is strapped to the gurney. She has already told prison officials she will not have a final statement. Earlier in the day, she declined a final meal. She did not want any of her family members, her own children, her five children, to be present for the execution tonight, and they are not here. The witnesses are all the victim's relatives and the official witnesses, the reporters the state officials, along with her defense attorneys who also just went inside the prison. Once she's given the first chemical that slows her breathing, then she's administered a second chemical. That stops her heart. Then it's all over with, and that should take place sometime in the next 10 to 12 minutes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK, Charles Zewe, stand by. We'll be back to you.

In the meantime, the Texas governor and the Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush spent this day off the campaign trail back in his home state.

CNN's Patty Davis has been following the Bush presidential campaign and his decision not to grant a reprieve. She joins us live from the Texas capital of Austin -- Patti?

PATTI DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The statement by Texas Governor George W. Bush released just about a half hour ago. It says, "After careful review of the evidence in the case, I concur with the jury that Betty Lou Beets is guilty of this murder. I am confident that the courts, both state and federal, have thoroughly reviewed all of the issues raised by the defendant." And it goes on to say that the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have rejected all her appeals, and "I concur with the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and will not grant a 30-day stay."

George W. Bush allowing the execution of Betty Lou Beets to go forward. Not a surprising decision here by Governor Bush. He's a strong death penalty proponent. He has commuted only one death sentence, and that was Henry Lee Lucas. Last year he commuted that sentence to life, but he has never taken the initiative here on this 30-day delay. He's never done that while he's been governor here in the state.

Now under George W. Bush's tenure here, there have been 120 executions in the state of Texas. Betty Lou Beets now becomes number 121, 30 since he announced his bid for the presidency on June 12th. Betty Lou Beets now becomes number 31. He took off the day, as you said, from campaigning, spent the day here in Texas, his office said, doing the business of the governor. This was one of the very important matters that he had to attend to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK, Patty Davis in Austin, Texas.

And from the political implications of this execution to the legal implications now, joining me here in Washington is CNN's legal analyst Greta Van Susteren.

Greta, you had a chance not long to witness, to eyewitness, one of these lethal executions by lethal injection. Walk us through what goes on.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: First of all, Wolf, it's almost surreal because you're sitting in a room looking at an empty gurney with a couple of technicians standing around. And suddenly a door will open, people are standing around, there are phone lines open to the governor's office in the event the governor changes his mind.

The person who is about to be executed is quickly whisked over to the gurney, stripped down very quickly, alcohol is applied to the arm, presumably to prevent infection in the event the governor calls and stops the execution. A needle is inserted in the arm, the chemicals drip in, and within seconds the person goes to sleep. Surreal, bizarre is the only way I can describe it to you.

BLITZER: And this is considered a more humane way of execution than the electric chair, for example?

VAN SUSTEREN: With the electric chair in the state of Florida, for instance, there have been lots of troubles with "old sparky." The Supreme Court is going to consider old sparky, whether or not it's constitutional next week. But Jeb Bush, who is the governor of Florida, now has lethal injection. It's brand new to the state of Florida. But the reason the electric chair is out in most states -- except for three -- is because some people have started on fire. You can smell flesh burning.

BLITZER: You know, you heard Patty Davis in Austin read the statement that Governor Bush just released, denying any stay of execution. I had a chance last Sunday when he was on "LATE EDITION" to ask him whether he was going to consider some sort of delay in this execution. I want you to listen to what he said, because it does open a door into some legal ramifications of this decision.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wolf, my job is to uphold the laws of my state. And we ask two questions in Texas: Did you do the crime? Are you guilty of the crime committed? And, were you given full access to the courts of law? In my state of Texas, the case must first be reviewed by a board of pardons and parole. They have yet to do that, and I'm waiting for their recommendation.


BLITZER: All right, well, obviously since then the board of pardons and parole has decided against any stay of execution. But he does refer to the two questions that must be answered. Was this woman, a great grandmother, guilty of the crime? Yes, she was guilty of the crime. Was she given full access to the courts of law? He has obviously decided that she was.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, that's what's so unusual about this. I don't think it's any doubt she committed this murder. She's now saying that she's the victim of domestic violence. But she is a murderer. But just being a murderer doesn't necessarily mean that you're eligible for capital punishment.

He talks about upholding the laws of the state. She was indicted for murder for money. That's what made her eligible for the death penalty. But what is so alarming to lawyers is that it wasn't until two years after she committed this murder that she learned that there was money, that there was a pension. She didn't know it at the time she committed the murder, so technically she wasn't eligible for the death penalty.

And what's so unusual is what Patty Davis told us is that Governor Bush did spare the life of Henry Lee Lucas for technical reasons, much like this is technical reasons. In that particular case, he spared him because Henry Lucas, who's a terrible serial killer, killed dozens of people, confessed to killing a woman who was found naked except for orange socks in Texas. But as it turned out later, as uncontraverted, as terrible a murderer as he was, he hadn't committed that murder. He was in the state of Florida at the time. And so for that reason, for technical reasons, to make sure that it followed the law, Governor Bush spared a serial killer.

But in this case, he didn't, for technical reasons, spare this woman who was indicted for murder for money but didn't learn about the money until two years later by her lawyer, who then hid it. And subsequently he was indicted in a unrelated matter, and he went to jail and he was disbarred.

BLITZER: In the eyes of the law, though, should it make any difference that this was a woman, a great grandmother, who says she was battered, she was abused from an early age, but especially by her husband?

VAN SUSTEREN: That isn't the issue. The issue is whether we play by the rules when we prosecute, when we put people to death. Did she fit the definition? If she committed the murder, if it was murder for money, she was eligible for the death penalty. And the state of Texas has a death penalty. If she didn't do it murder for money, if subsequently she learned about the money but not at the time, then we aren't playing by the rules. Is she a murderer? Yes. Should she be punished, kept out of society? Yes. But should she be put to death turns on that simple question: Did she know at the time she committed the murder she was doing it for money?

BLITZER: But you would think these questions that you're now raising, Greta, would have been thoroughly reviewed by the pardons commission, by the governor, by the Supreme Court, all the various channels over these many, more than a dozen years that she has been under this death sentence.

VAN SUSTEREN: No one wants to let a murderer go, Wolf. No one wants to let a murderer off the hook. But what we cannot deny is that she had a lawyer who hid this information, this knowledge that she learned after the fact two years later. The reason the lawyer didn't withdraw and let the court know that she didn't know about the money at the time of the murder is because in his contract with her he had the media rights. He wanted to make more money from it. This lawyer then, in such a bizarre set of facts, later went on to become the D.A. in the county. He then himself was arrested by the FBI for soliciting a $300,000 bribe to, in essence, toss another capital murder as the D.A. He went to prison himself. He was disbarred. At his own sentencing, he said, I've been drinking since I was 14. I'm a terrible alcoholic. Yet we are comfortable in this country putting this woman to death having a lawyer like that. BLITZER: Charles Zewe is standing by over at the prison in Huntsville.

Charles, has there been any official word yet from the prison on the fate of Betty Lou Beets?

ZEWE: No, Wolf. It's -- will be shortly though. These things generally -- and this happens a lot in Texas -- they generally take about 15 to 20 minutes to complete, and then we get the official word that the death row inmate has indeed expired.

A point about E. Ray Andrews, Betty Beet's attorney, lawyer Joe Marguiles, who is representing her now, has made the point over and over and over again that Beets's family tried to get Andrews, the trial lawyer, to present a battered spouse defense. But he refused. And, you know, as Greta was saying, he had an alleged conflict of interest here and has turned out to be a sordid character in his own right.

The state Senate in Texas here passed a concurrent resolution which does not have the impact or the effect of law and told the pardon board, look, we think you ought to consider battered spouse defense in considering these cases. But that did not happen in this case. The pardon board, all 18 members appointed by the governor, flatly refused any request for a reprieve or clemency on the part of Beets earlier in the week on Tuesday.

So this has all gone according to how executions in Texas generally go. On Henry Lee Lucas, by the way, he was a man, a drifter, a one-eyed drifter who was taken all around this state, and he confessed to literally hundreds of murders. The one he was convicted of and sentenced to death, however, turns out that he was wrongly convicted of that murder, as you pointed out, and he was in Florida at the time. But that was indeed a technicality, and has been the only time in Governor Bush's tenure that someone on death row has been taken off death row.

BLITZER: Charles, any sign -- I understand there are some protesters there, people who are opposed to this execution. Set the scene? What's going on outside the prison?

ZEWE: Just down the street from me, Wolf, there are about a hundred or so people gathered in the street. They are holding placards with pictures of Betty Lou Beets. One of the pictures taken of her after one of the alleged beatings by her husbands. They are saying that Texas -- the placards are saying this -- that Texas is finishing what her husbands began, i.e., killing her. They have been quiet. This has been the scene of repeated executions here in Texas. Protesters gather here, anti-death penalty protesters, and they have been very quietly watching the proceedings here, watching the comings and goings, making their point, and they are expected to move on.

One woman told me a little while ago that Betty Beets to her has been a heroine, that she has someone that she looks up to, and that she's changed her life inside the jail and will serve as an example to battered women, and what can happen to battered will -- Wolf. VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Wolf, the interesting thing is that Karla Faye Tucker, who was also executed in Texas, she changed her life dramatically while in prison. But that's not the issue. The issue isn't whether or not they reform themselves. It's whether, technically, they were eligible for the death penalty, and what's so interesting, or troubling or disturbing here, is that for technical reasons, Henry Lucas is alive. For a technical problem, this woman's life is not being spared. She's a murderer, but she doesn't meet the technical definition.

BLITZER: OK, Greta Van Susteren and Charles Zewe, Patty Davis, thanks for joining us.

Stay with CNN for continuous coverage of the Beets execution. We expect an announcement that the execution was carried out within the half hour. We plan on bringing you that statement when it happens. We'll have complete details on "THE WORLD TODAY" at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. That's 5:00 p.m. Pacific.

For now, thanks very much for joining us. I am Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Now back to MONEYLINE.


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