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A Humane Death Sentence?

FOUR CLAYS AFTER the state of Texas executed Bettie Lou Beets this past February, a letter from her arrived my mailbox, The letter had taken its time to reach me.

A sixty-two-year-old great-grandmother, Bettie (her spelling--not used in virtually all mainstream media reports) had been convicted in 1985 of killing her fifth husband and was sentenced to death row. She also had been convicted of shooting and wounding her second husband and had been charged with fatally shooting her fourth.

But for the last two years I had known Bettie as my friend and pen pal. Opening her letter took me back to the grim evening of her lethal injection as I and others waited outside "The Walls" prison in Huntsville wondering what was going on inside. The handwriting was familiar. She was frightened.

We humans are both blessed and cursed with imagination. It is that quality, said ethologist Jane Goodall--not toolmaking or feeling for another person--that separates us from other primates. We can imagine death.

Imagination took me to my friend's cell. In pages of words shaking in illegible scrawls that even re-reading today bring tears to my eyes, I could feel her fear, her scant hope that she would win a reprieve. "I wish Joe [Joseph Margulies, her attorney] was here," Bettie wrote me. "I am sure he will be soon. I need to know what he is doing out there. Maybe he'll call." Only about an hour before her death, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to get involved in her case. Minutes later, a final attempt at a reprieve had failed when Texas Governor George W. Bush declined to intervene. Bush has intervened only once in the more than 120 executions he has approved since taking office in 1995.

"I hope too I'll be able to see you," her letter continued. "That may be too much to hope for but still I hope.... I know you won't get this until it is all over, whatever way it goes, and I believe it will be a go." The condemned's last moments are not generally recognized as torture. But I could feel her anticipation of humiliation and death as she prepared to be strapped in before witnesses to take her last breath. She is number 208 on the list of executions by Texas since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1982.

Across the driveway from the red brick fortress prison that protects the execution chamber is the administration building and pressroom. There witnesses to Bettie's death took turns stating what they had just experienced and its meaning for them. The Austin American-Statesman published the following account of Margulies' press statement:

What happens is a deep wretching spasm that heaves the person up off the table, and that is what happened to Betty.... A line of spittle flew from her mouth and landed on her chin .... The last breath shoots out of her, and then she lapses into unconsciousness.

Earlier he had said that Bettie was scared. But was it just this sort of death that had frightened her?

She may have heard how the State of Florida had prepared John Spenkelink for his execution. It was Florida's first after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 moratorium, which also instructed states to improve their judicial selection of death-eligible candidates. At an Austin conference for death-penalty opponents, I had heard about Spenkelink's death in the electric chair from Randall Dale Adams, the innocent man of The Thin Blue Line documentary who had been freed from prison twelve years after a brief Texas trial put him on death row.

In a monotone that bit the words, Adams conveyed the coroner's report, which said Spenkelink had cotton stuffed up his rectum, in his penis, up his nose, and in his ears and had a ball placed in his mouth to silence him. Surely most listeners to Adams' talk recognized this example as torturous and inhumane. Why was it necessary for the state to degrade Spenkelink so before killing him?

I hope Bettie never heard the story reported by Amnesty International in July 1998: "A condemned man is held strapped with a needle for 70 minutes while his last appeal is being argued in the courts. He loses." Wasn't it enough that the man was going to die? Did the state have to punctuate his mortality by leaving him strapped in with a needle for more than an hour?

The conditions on death row are also so inhumane that some would prefer death. For her final days in the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Bettie had been removed from her work program and placed in an isolation cell in the prison's multipurpose facility. It housed the punished, the acting-out mentally ill, and three other condemned women who were not in the work program. The move to isolation also carried with it a new status for Bettie: administrative segregation, a punishment designation.

Officers were supposed to regularly check on Bettie, but that unit is high-maintenance and understaffed. Through the bars of her own cell and two dayroom windows, Pamela Perillo was the only one who had a constant view of Bettie, sitting on her bed, staring at her cell wall. Pamela pushed the guards. "Go on down the hall and talk to Bettie," she told them. "She's all alone and no one talks to her." The guards replied that they didn't know what to say.

In 1995, when Pamela had come within two days of execution, the warden had offered her unlimited contact visits with her mother and son. "I remember looking out the window in our day-room door thinking to myself, I would never see the sky or trees or sun and moon .... I couldn't pull myself away from that door because I didn't want to stop seeing it all." Pamela knew her friend needed that, too.

For Bettie's final days, Pamela begged the warden to remove the window cover so Bettie could at least see the sky, but the request was turned down. "It's for her protection," the warden replied.

The warden also had given the order for Bettie to wear that silly-looking gown that the mental patients wear. Bettie objected. Who would care or even see what she wore in her cell? "It was just for me," she contended. So they compromised: Bettie would wear the regular prison whites for media interviews but not for visits or in her cell.

The warden issued a laundry list of rule changes after a Thanksgiving 1998 escape attempt from the Ellis Unit I death row for men 180 miles away. Seven men on death row hid on a building rooftop, then ran for the fence at mid-night. Shots were fired. All surrendered except one who made it over the fence and into the woods. Inmate Martin Gurule was found a week later drowned in the swamp near the prison grounds.

It was an exciting week for nearby residents along the Trinity River. But for the Department of Criminal Justice headquartered in Huntsville, it was a week-long public humiliation. Heads rolled. Death row would be moved to the new high-security Terrell Unit down river at Lake Livingston. Until that time, all some 450 inmates would be closely controlled.

Back in Gatesville, life changed radically and permanently for the women on death row. They were handcuffed and strip-searched before and after each movement out of their cells, even for the few steps to the shower.

After the date of Bettie's execution had been set, prison officials wouldn't let her use the toilet in the visitor's building and were going to strip-search, handcuff, and march her back to her cell, then reverse the process. This is shocking treatment for a sixty-two-year-old woman with a perfect prison record and who had worked (without pay) for every day that work was offered.

The use of strip searches should be carefully monitored and never used as punishment. They are justified for security reasons--for example, if there is a problem with contraband such as drugs or weapons. But this was not the case on Gatesville's death row, according to Pamela.

The strip searches are demeaning. And for the majority of inmates who have been sexually abused, they serve as an additional psychological burden. Bettie hated strip searches so much she wouldn't let me buy her another Coke during one visit for fear she would have to ask to go to the bathroom and be strip-searched going in and coming out. She had written me:

At work I felt I was going through a car wash of hands every day. One officer will strip-search you, and you have nothing on, and then you re-dress in only a gown and panties and she will run her hands over you, drawing me into backflashes and nightmares of rapes I've endured from my husband.

It made no sense.

Pamela told me there had never been an escape or violence or a riot on Gatesville's death row. She said the women lived peacefully together, sharing work, meals, conversation, books, prayers, advice, and--yes--arguments sometimes, but not fist fights. Disciplinary problems were so rare that some inmates never got written up. Bettie never did in her almost fifteen years on death row.

But perhaps the aim of prison policy is something other than peaceful coexistence. One can understand how it is easier for prison officials to deliver a non-human to the Huntsville execution chamber than a person with whom they have had a good relationship.

"We are being punished for what the men did," complained Pamela and inmate Brittany Holberg to their friends and to the warden. At their six-month committee review they complained that the men at Ellis death row were being treated better than the women at Mountain View. One male committee member responded that, if the inmates wanted "gender equality," they would get it.

The next day, when the women were taken from their cells for a cell search, they were told they could wear only their underclothes--like the men in their boxer shorts. They were marched handcuffed, held by the elbows between guards, down the hall in their bras and panties.

Brittany, a past victim of a gang rape, vomited back in her cell, then wrote letters to supporters who published them on Internet sites. The warden rescinded the policy after ten days. Calls and letters to the prison, including some from church elders, expressed outrage. But prison officials had already made their point: they have the power to humiliate.

The women still fight for fair application of the rules as best they can, but their losses have mounted. They include the loss of Bible study, haircuts and perms, newspapers and magazines once donated from the prison school, television, telephone calling opportunities, cable hookups for radios, and all electrical outlets but one. Nighttime sleep is interrupted by lights being turned on in the cells up to every thirty minutes. Recreation time has been reduced, contact with each other has been lost, and talking together is forbidden, as is access to the hall water fountain. Windows are covered with Plexiglas that shuts out the outside view, natural light, and ventilation. There is no way to clear the air when prison officials use pepper spray on inmates. The women are locked up twenty-three to twenty-four hours each day.

The women also report that the rules change before they have had a chance to adjust to the previous ones. They demand but are denied written rules. Where once there was peace, now there is needless suffering that can make people crazy.

The death penalty corrupts or wounds everyone it touches--not just inmates but wardens and custody staff, chaplains and reporters, activists and witnesses on both sides of the execution chamber. Rick Halperin, who teaches human rights at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, contends that the process of dehumanizing the condemned not only prepares them to be killed but also prepares those who participate in the killing. He speaks fiercely of the one execution he witnessed, where witnesses were crowded together, nearly touching the viewing window:

The male chaplain stood at the foot of the gurney and stared only at the floor. He never looked at Frank, nor did he ever look at anyone in the viewing room. The prison warden stood at the head of the gurney, behind Frank's head, and he too never looked at anything except the floor.

Outrage shakes his voice as he calls execution what it is: the extermination of a human being.

I remember, on my last visit with Bettie, a guard's face flushed from the effort of holding back tears. There also was consensus among four different people acquainted with Gatesville's warden that the warden suffered mightily after delivering Karla Faye Tucker to her death in February 1998. Karla was the first Texas woman in modern times to be executed and it made the warden go numb, then cold, with grief. She welcomed a crackdown on inmates and added her own variations in policy. Pamela said the warden even changed from calling her Pam to Offender Perillo.

International standards for prisoners have a well-established history among civilized nations. For example, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted in 1955 requires that the long-term care of prisoners includes fresh air; exercise; activities; prompt access to dental, medical, and mental health care and sanitation; adequate rest and food; and ventilation from a Cell window that provides sufficient natural light for reading and writing. Prisonwear designed to humiliate has been disallowed.

But, as half the other countries of the world have discovered, the United States can do better than capital punishment. It isn't so hard to imagine a future when, instead of spending an average of $2 million to $3 million to execute one inmate--three times as much as it would cost to keep that individual in prison for forty years--the family members of murder victims will receive financial restitution. It is the prosecutors who encourage victims to nurse their anger through the years until the final eruption on execution night. The condemned makes a last statement, victims make a last statement, and the state has no further use for either.

The ones who walk away unharmed are the prosecutors, scheming their next career move to judge or legislator. They are the ones who must be stopped.

The rest of us need to be reminded that torture was eliminated as a legal punishment when our Constitution was written because it gives too much power to the state over its citizens. Outlawing "cruel and unusual" punishment was less a humanitarian gesture than another curb of the acknowledged appetite of the powerful for absolute power, writes Kate Millett in her 1995 book The Politics of Cruelty.' An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment.

In her 1999 book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, Jane Goodall writes that only humans are capable of heroic acts because we have the unique ability to identify with one another. But, she continues, the dark side of that is true as well: "Only we humans inflict physical or mental pain on living creatures deliberately despite--even because of--our knowledge of the suffering involved." She concludes that only humans are capable of torture and evil acts.

Amnesty International's 1998 report concludes with this warning: "No attempts to sanitize the execution process can cleanse the death penalty of its inherent cruelty." Instead of providing "closure," it widens the pool of victims. I now include myself among them, mourning in rage and sorrow for the loss of my friend, who even at the very end cautioned me to avoid bitterness.

Mary Frances Robinson is a founder of the Texas Moratorium on Executions. As an advocate for women in prison, she regularly visited five women on Texas death row and is writing an account of the women's work strike there, Taking on Texas. She can be contacted at and www.whateverdesign. com/speakout.
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Title Annotation:Bettie Lou Beets
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Previous Article:Enough Is E-nough.

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