Death Race 2000

Early this month, the Republican Governor of Illinois declared a moratorium on capital punishment. Persuaded by new evidence that had freed thirteen innocent men under sentence of death — more than the state had managed to execute since 1987 — Governor George Ryan announced the moratorium, saying it would stay in effect until a review of the process allowed the state to be “sure with moral certainty” that it would only execute those persons actually guilty of capital crimes.

In Florida, meanwhile, eighteen condemned prisoners have had their convictions overturned after new evidence demonstrated their innocence. The Florida authorities have reacted rather differently — annoyed at the gall of the courts in legally obstructing executions, and outraged at insults to the time-honored spectacle of the electric chair, the Legislature offered the “choice” of lethal injection to inmates of death row, and at the insistence of Governor Jeb Bush (guided by Texas), “streamlined” the capital punishment appeals process by requiring the legally absurd procedure that direct appeals and constitutional appeals proceed simultaneously.

And in Texas? In early February, there were eleven prisoners currently scheduled for execution. Of those, the most notorious current cases are Odell Barnes (scheduled March 1), convicted of the 1989 murder of Helen Bass in Wichita Falls, and Betty Lou Beets (February 24), convicted of the 1985 murder of her husband Jimmy Don Beets in Gun Barrel City. From the headlines and the wire service summaries that will dominate the news preceding their deaths, it will be difficult to summon up much public sympathy for either Barnes or Beets. The Bass murder was extraordinarily brutal, and Barnes was an ex-con previously guilty of violent crimes. The murdered body of Jimmy Don Beets, Betty Lou’s fourth husband, was found buried in her front yard, and that of her third husband was later found buried elsewhere on the property.

But to anyone who bothers looking closely into the cases — as the Board of Pardons and Paroles is legally charged with doing — would find considerable evidence that Barnes is almost certainly not guilty, and that the deaf, brain-damaged Beets has lived a life subject to such unrelenting brutality — specifically at the hands of the dead men — it is a wonder she is alive to be executed. Both prisoners received completely inadequate defenses, with strong evidence in Barnes’ case of prosecutorial misconduct, and in Beets’ case of a defense attorney — despite knowing that her crime could not possibly be a capital crime — acquiring for his own profit the media rights to his client’s death-row story. He was sanctioned by the bar, small comfort to Beets.

In a rational state system, the two cases are classic instances of the necessity for clemency. In Texas, they will receive none.

What’s the difference between Texas and Illinois?

In the first place, in Texas there is currently no volunteer student journalism project devoted to investigating capital punishment cases. (Governor Ryan’s decision was influenced by a Northwestern University journalism class turning up enough information to win the release of death row inmates. Perhaps a few students in Huntsville, Austin, College Station, Houston and elsewhere might begin thinking about doing what the prosecutors and the state bar seem incapable of.) And in the second place, the Governor of Illinois is not running for president, and doesn’t need to brandish a body-count (now in excess of 120, and mounting) at the voters.

For more information on the case of Odell Barnes, see the Houston Press article by Bob Burtman, “Killing Time,” January 27, at For Betty Beets, consult the Amnesty International web site, at

Note for web readers: Neither Barnes nor Beets received clemency; both were executed on-schedule.

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Published at 12:00 am CST