Death Row Granny

Bettie Beets killed two husbands. Now she's likely to become the first woman the state of Texas has ever executed

Bettie told the jury she reached up and got a bedspread and began wrapping her dead husband's body in it. "I held Jimmy's body for a few minutes and tried to tell him what I was doing and why." She and Robby put his body in the planter, Bettie testified, and the next morning she got up early to buy some peat moss.

On cross-examination, Bandy pointed out to the jury that Bettie had shed no tears on the stand. He asked her about her feelings for her husband. "I loved Jimmy Don," Bettie testified. "Nobody's ever been as good to me as he was."

Jurors deliberated for six hours into the evening of October 12 before returning at about 9 p.m. The verdict was guilty.

In the courtroom, Bettie's children began crying when they heard the verdict. Bettie collapsed and was hospitalized overnight.

The next Monday, the jury reconvened to determine her punishment. The judgment again was swift: death by lethal injection.

Since her 1985 trial, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice refused to hear Bettie Beets' appeals. Twice, she's received last-minute stays of execution. At one point, her conviction was briefly overturned.

One jurist, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Marvin Teague, accorded her mythic status in a 1989 opinion. "Ms. Beets is evidently a greedy and insensitive killer, the kind of succubus who has managed to capture the romantic imagination of Americans in such modern cinematic classics as Body Heat and Black Widow," the judge wrote.

After exhausting her appeals in the state courts, Bettie's attorneys have been making their pleas in the federal system. Contending that Andrews was ineffective, her attorneys filed an affidavit from his co-counsel, Gil Hargrave, who said Andrews did very little investigation on Bettie's case and spent every afternoon during the trial at the VFW Hall drinking five or six Wild Turkey doubles.

But they also contended that Andrews had a conflict of interest, after persuading Bettie, on the second day of her trial, to assign him all media and literary rights to her story. (In fact, there's no indication those rights ever brought the lawyer a penny.)

The appeals lawyers also claimed Andrews had a conflict because Bettie, before ever being charged, had once told her lawyer she was unsure whether she was entitled to Jimmy Don's pension and life-insurance benefits.

If she knew nothing about being eligible for money, that would scuttle the state's accusation that she had murdered Jimmy Don for profit--the basis for her death sentence. That prospect, her appeals lawyers contend, means Andrews should have declined to represent Bettie--and instead testified as a witness on her behalf.

The state rebutted the argument by noting that others had told Bettie how she might become eligible for death benefits after Jimmy Don's demise; and that Bettie had sold her husband's boat and tried to sell his house.

In 1991, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled there was no conflict of interest. But various appeals points remain to be heard. It's now likely that resolving Bettie's case--either by setting aside her sentence or clearing the way for her execution--will take at least three more years.

Beets' trial attorney, Andrews, is now himself facing a prison term. After winning the post of Henderson County district attorney, he was charged last year with soliciting $300,000 to drop murder charges against a Corsicana businessman accused of killing his wife. After his indictment, Andrews checked himself into a hospital for treatment of substance abuse and gambling addiction. After negotiating a plea bargain, he awaits sentencing to a federal prison.

Following his stepmother's trial, Jamie Beets was declared his father's sole heir and received about $150,000 in benefits and property. Jamie felt vindicated after laboring for months to try to direct investigators toward Bettie.

Jamie suffered psychiatric problems for years, including nightmares about being shot in his sleep by a faceless woman lying next to him. But last year, he began to pull himself together. He is engaged to be married and has his own heating and air conditioning business; he's off drugs and alcohol and has started going to church.

Jamie was relieved when his father's skull was finally buried with the rest of his body in November 1989, four years after the trial. He lives with the dread that Bettie's appeals will result in a new trial. And he's determined to be there when--and if--Bettie is executed.

The trial was especially painful for Bettie's children--especially Robby and Shirley. "Those kids loved their mother," notes DA's investigator O'Brien. "They were very torn, very mixed up. What does a child do when his mother asks him to bury his stepfather?"

The courts have yet to deal with Bettie's contention that her behavior results from battered-wife syndrome, brain damage from abuse and a 1980 car accident, a learning disability, her hearing impairment, and, according to experts retained by her attorneys, "an abnormally low IQ."

One psychologist posits that Bettie attempted to escape the torment of her life during the 1980s by drinking alcohol and popping large quantities of diet pills, a combination that could have induced paranoia and psychosis, making her more likely to overreact to perceived threats. Is that what created the "different" Bettie that her son Bobby saw?

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