Death Row Granny

The work is painstaking, but Bettie Beets says she likes it. Certainly it beats doing nothing.

Every morning at 7, she and three other women settle down in a big room cozily decorated with craft projects they have completed--doilies, afghans, lap quilts.

For years, Bettie made toddler-sized dolls, with painted faces and black, white, or brown skin. Buyers put their names on a year-long waiting list to get one, for $25. Now she spends six hours a day making quilts.

Bettie and her co-workers earn nothing from their labors; that goes to the Texas Department of Corrections.

At 57, Bettie is the oldest of the four women in the group. She has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Once bottle blond, her hair is now a soft gray, permed in the prison beauty shop. She wears hearing aids. But her eyes, fitted with blue contact lenses, still can see well enough to sew. She wears a white shirt, white pants, a gold ring, and a tiny gold cross on a chain. Well-groomed, pleasantly plump, and matronly, Bettie Beets looks every bit the East Texas grandma--the kind you might see shopping at Wal-Mart.

Not at all the sort of woman to murder a couple of husbands.
Inside the big room, the four women chat while they work. They've been together nine years now, and conflicts occasionally surface. Bettie says they talk through those, praying to find answers.

But they never, ever talk about why they are there.
When Bettie first arrived at the Mountain View Unit of Gatesville State Prison in October 1985, she says she was convinced she was not in a penitentiary, but in a mental institution--a shadow of her family's past. Her cell was near a treatment center, and at night there were screams and moans, floods and flames. Female inmates brought in for psychiatric care would stop up toilets or sinks and turn the water on to flood the room. One terrible night, a woman set herself on fire.

About six months after her arrival, Bettie and two other inmates were moved to a remodeled area. Each has a private cell; they share a day room. Later, after being joined by a fourth woman, they decided to give their home a new name. It was too depressing to say they lived on Death Row. Now, when their laundry is done, it arrives in a bag marked "Life Row."

"We call it that 'cause Jesus lives here," says Bettie. Every Wednesday, there's Bible study. Bettie spends much of her time reading "anything scriptural," and books about battered women.

Whatever the name, the truth is that Bettie lives in a place where death draws nearer every day.

There are more than 400 inmates on Death Row in Texas. Only four are women. All four--the members of Bettie's sewing circle--are convicted killers.

Pamela Perillo, 39, robbed and strangled a Louisiana man. Karla Faye Tucker, 35, was convicted of the pickax murder of a man in Harris County. Francis Elaine Newton, 29, was sentenced to death for the murder of her husband and two children.

Bettie Beets has not been on Death Row the longest. But her conviction nine years ago in the capital murder of Dallas Fire Department captain Jimmy Don Beets, her fifth husband, has been upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and is furthest along in its path through the federal court system.

The system follows no hard-and-fast timetable, stretching out Death Row appeals to an average of eight to 10 years. But since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1982, executions have come more frequently. In 1994, Texas executed 14 prisoners--more than any other state in the nation. In the last 12 years, 85 inmates have been strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection. So far, Bettie Beets has survived two dates with the executioner.

In interviews with the Dallas Observer, Bettie insists she was wrongly convicted, that she killed no one. She says her defense attorney was motivated by greed to botch her defense so that he could cash in from the sale of media rights to her story.

Appellate attorneys have filed documents contending that her lawyer failed to introduce evidence that Bettie suffered from battered wife syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and organic brain damage--that she is herself a victim of a life filled with poverty, violence, and sexual abuse.

And they contend that her attorney negligently failed to challenge the most bitter fact about her case: the testimony of her own children, who described how their mother methodically planned and carried out two murders. Bettie says her son and daughter lied, putting their mother on Death Row in exchange for a prosecutor's promise to let them go free.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Glenna Whitley