A Letter from Hell

The Texas Death Machine keeps on killing.

In late November, a few days before Thanksgiving, the Observer received a long letter, carefully handwritten on lined paper, which began, “Please pardon my handwriting, as my typewriter got destroyed by the guards a few months ago. As you can tell by my address, I am an inmate on Death Row.” The letter was from longtime reader James Beathard (Death Row Inmate Number 785), writing to thank us for his complimentary subscription. He was also letting us know, “After December 9th, you may consider my subscription ‘canceled’ because I’ll be executed that day.”

We were unfamiliar with Beathard’s circumstances, and would not even publish another issue prior to his execution date. But we researched his case, spoke to his lawyer, and made a couple of trips to Huntsville, where he spoke to us frankly, even cheerfully, about the dark history that brought him there. Beathard had been convicted for his part in the 1984 Trinity County murders of Gene Hathorn Sr., his wife Linda Sue Hathorn, and their son Marcus – on the basis of the perjured and subsequently recanted testimony of Gene Hathorn Jr. (also awaiting execution). There is considerable evidence that Beathard was not guilty, and abundant evidence that he received at trial not just inadequate but self-defeating legal defense. His original attorney recently admitted he was simultaneously representing both Beathard and Hathorn while prosecutors were attempting to use each against the other, and while Hathorn was accusing Beathard in an attempt to save his own life. (Hathorn would later admit that he lied, that he murdered his family on his own, and that he set up Beathard as a patsy either to provide an alibi or to take the blame.)

Beathard had no illusions about the possibilities of a reprieve or clemency, but asked reporters simply to tell his story. “I’m pretty realistic,” he wrote the Observer. “Still, there is a part of me that feels that as bad as it is to die in here, it’s just a little worse to die without anyone saying, ‘This is wrong!'” We spent a futile week trying to get some mainstream media coverage for Beathard’s case while recalling the words of one op-ed page editor, who told us, “They all say they’re innocent.” (So, of course, do the truly innocent; and recent history has repeatedly demonstrated that some indeed are.) One reporter we contacted was interested, but told us his editors were just then preoccupied with the body hunt outside Ciudad Juárez (see Left Field, Jan. 21, 2000). Another reporter was looking into the case when the inmate scheduled to die the day before Beathard’s execution attempted suicide; the state of Texas dutifully revived him in order to kill him on schedule. There’s always another story on Death Row.

As he expected, Beathard’s formal appeal for clemency was denied, although he won the unusual victory of a non-unanimous vote (three of eighteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted for commutation). On December 9, James Beathard was killed, after a last statement in which he comforted his family and friends and pointed out that capital punishment remains a political trophy, especially in this campaign season. “The clemency process is already a joke,” he had written, “but with the election looming … the use of executions to generate publicity makes clemency impossible. In other words, as hard as clemency is already, we shouldn’t have our life and death influenced by Bush’s need to be elected.” In a final admonition, which he realized would be understood by those convinced of his guilt as simply hypocrisy, he said, “The United States has gotten to now where [the government has] zero respect for human life. My death is just a symptom of a bigger illness.”

Prosecutors and death penalty advocates insist that most capital murder cases are open and shut, and that defense appeals rest largely on “technicalities.” In fact, many murder cases are overburdened with the sort of ambiguous circumstances, prosecutorial misconduct, and defense incompetence that mark the Beathard case. In January alone, the state of Texas is scheduled to execute seven more inmates. It had been eight, but Johnny Penry, a man both mentally retarded and the victim of brutal and devastating abuse as a child, was recently granted a stay. No matter — still ready for January execution are Glen McGinnis, also an abuse victim who was seventeen at the time of his crime, and Larry Robison, a paranoid schizophrenic the state recently ruled is now sane enough to die. Those are the headline cases. In January.

And as Beathard pointed out in his letter, the court cases are only the visible part of the Death Row story:

Then there is the ongoing “temporary” lockdown that started with Thanksgiving 1998’s escape attempt, and all the attendant restrictions. No work to break up a day, no art and craft activities permitted, most typewriters destroyed. Grim days indeed. And now we’re being moved to the punitive super-seg (or Super-Max) facilities at the Terrell Unit in Livingston. Total isolation there, designed to break a person down … a never-ending Hell…. Without a doubt, I’m a lot better off getting executed than making the transfer to the Terrell Unit. As I said, I’m not looking forward to dying but under the circumstances it sure beats the alternative.

Whatever else they may think of him, Texans should know that James Beathard did not receive a fair trial. And more likely than not, we all stood witness — in effect took part — in the execution of an innocent man. As he told us in December, “I’m not the first, and I’m certainly not going to be the last.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST