By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Her voice is low and pleasant, as she earnestly presents the saga of Bettie Lou Dunevant, the "good little girl" from Newport News, Virginia.
For years, many of her childhood memories were blocked, she says, brought back only a few years ago when a lawyer assigned to her appeal came to visit. As the attorney began to ask Bettie questions, memories came trickling back. "I didn't know until a few years ago who Bettie was and what Bettie had missed and what Bettie's life could have been like if I'd had some help," she says bitterly.
Bettie was born in March 1937, in a pine cabin in North Carolina where her parents, Louise and James Dunevant, were sharecroppers on a tobacco farm. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no glass in the windows. There was little to eat but salt pork and corn.
When Bettie was five, her parents moved to Newport News to work in the cotton mills. That year, Bettie contracted measles; the resulting high fever and ear infections produced profound hearing loss.
Bettie's mother was a quiet woman who kept an immaculate home, decorated with beautiful drapes and hand-made doilies. But when Bettie was about 13, her mother suffered a psychotic breakdown. Severe depression and hallucinations put her in and out of the state hospital for years, according to court records.
While her mother was hospitalized, Bettie says, she cooked, cleaned house and cared for her two younger siblings. She says her father drank heavily and hit her. "I grew up doing everything I was told to do. I learned that if you didn't, you got hurt." She says other children taunted her, telling her that her mother was crazy--and that she would end up that way too.
Louise Dunevant returned to her family when Bettie was 14. A year later, in the late spring of 1952, desperate to get away from home, Bettie dropped out of the ninth grade to marry Robert Branson, a local boy with olive skin and black wavy hair. He was 18 and worked at a zipper factory. She was 15.
Branson went to work in the shipyard. In 1956, the first of their six children, Faye, was born. But their marriage was stormy. He asked for a divorce. During a six-month separation, Bettie says, she twice attempted suicide.
The two reconciled, and had a second child, Connie. By then, they'd moved to Mesquite, and Robert found a job as a welder. Shirley, Phyllis, Robert II (Robby), and Bobby followed. There were happy times: family vacations, outings to the zoo, Easter egg hunts, Thanksgiving dinners.
But her husband, Bettie claims in court records and interviews, was mentally and physically abusive. She says he was so jealous and possessive that he didn't want her to work or leave the house, driving her to attempt suicide a third time. The marriage finally ended in December 1969, after 17 years, when Bettie filed for divorce, accusing Branson of cruel treatment. (Branson did not return phone calls.)
Affidavits filed by her children describe the divorce as a turning point in Bettie's life. Still just 32, she had few skills and only a ninth-grade education; that, combined with her hearing problem, made it difficult to find a good job. Branson fell behind on child-support payments for the six kids. "I remember after the divorce she would cry a lot and say how she loved daddy," said Connie. "She was never really happy with anybody after that.''
The family began to disintegrate. Bettie started drinking heavily, going out to clubs at night and ignoring her children. At 15, Faye married and moved out. Bettie sent Robby and Phyllis to live with their father and his new wife. Connie went to live with sister Faye. The youngest child, Bobby, stayed with his mother; Shirley moved in and out.
In 1970, Bettie married Bill Lane, a house painter. Family members portray Lane as physically abusive, beating Bettie and threatening her with guns. The two divorced only months after their marriage. But they couldn't stay apart.
On January 17, 1972, Dallas County sheriff's deputies were called to Bettie's apartment in Hutchins at 1:45 a.m. They found Lane lying face down in the yard behind the building. He was taken to Parkland Hospital in critical condition with two gunshot wounds in the back.
Bettie told investigators Lane had "run her out" of the Roundup Club on Industrial Boulevard earlier that night and threatened to come by her house and hurt her. After she went home to bed, she said, Lane began banging at the back door of her apartment, then broke the door down. That's when, Bettie said, she fetched her .22-caliber pistol from a china cabinet and shot "until she didn't see him anymore."
Lane told deputies a different story--that it was Bettie who summoned him to the apartment, asking to talk, and that when he arrived, the back door was dark. "I asked her to turn a light on, and she said that she had decided not to talk to me and to get out of here," Lane told investigators. "I started backing out the door and she stuck a gun against my back and fired one time.