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Is the Death Penalty Cruel and Unusual or Is it a Punishment that Fits the Crime?

Aired February 24, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Another execution in Texas, while Illinois puts a moratorium on all executions.

Tonight, is the death penalty cruel and unusual and is it time for a federal moratorium or is it a punishment that fits the crime?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the CROSSFIRE: in Oklahoma City, Republican Governor Frank Keating, Oklahoma chairman of the Bush campaign; and in New York, Bianca Jagger, a member of Amnesty International U.S.A.

PRESS: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Is it time to declare a national moratorium on all executions? That question is very real tonight where official word has just been received from Huntsville, Texas, on the death, by lethal injection, of 62-year-old great-grandmother Betty Lou Beets, convicted of killing her fifth husband and burying him in her front yard flower garden.


LARRY TODD, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Six o'clock this evening, inmate Betty Lou Beets was removed from the holding cell. She was strapped to the gurney at 6:01 this evening. The warden asked her if she wanted to make a last statement. She did not acknowledge that. She was expressionless and solemn. The lethal drugs began to flow at 6:08. Dr. Gerald Wells, a contract physician, pronounced inmate Beets dead at 6:18 this evening.


PRESS: Beets became the 120th person executed in Texas since Governor George W. Bush became governor. But if it's full-speed ahead for the death penalty in Texas, it's full stop in Illinois where Republican Governor Paul Ryan, appalled at how close his state had come to executing 13 innocent people, recently called a temporary halt to all executions.

With his action, plus a proposal in Congress to give all death row inmates DNA testing, should the federal government call timeout on application of the death penalty? Or should that decision be left up to the states -- Mary?

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Miss Jagger, before we move on to the federal moratorium and that issue, let's flesh out this case a little bit more. She was convicted and executed there for the murder of her fifth husband, but she also killed her fourth husband. She shot them both in the back of the head. She buried them both in her front yard.

She forged her husband's signature on his insurance policy before his death. She was convicted by a jury of her peers. Through years and years and years of appeals, that verdict was upheld. Murder for money in Texas is punishable by the death penalty. Why should justice not have been carried out in this case?

BIANCA JAGGER, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL U.S.A.: Because there was no due process. The fact that she did not know that she could claim the insurance from her husband was never introduced in her trial. In fact, it was her lawyer -- her defense lawyer -- who told her that because she had signed on to him her rights for her life and for all publicity in the media, he decided not to withdraw from the case and become a witness to that, but instead to represent her. And that was never introduced in her trial.

Therefore, the Board of Pardons and Parole, despite the fact that there was legislation that would have allowed her and the Board of Pardons and Parole to review that, the fact that she was a battered woman, -- had -- never saw that evidence.

MATALIN: But Miss Jagger, she went through years of appeals and her own attorney said that they did submit during the appeal process the fact that she'd suffered emotional tumult in her relationships. That was admitted in the appeals and rejected. The federal -- the appellate court that upheld the verdict said that they did not prove that the admission of any of that evidence would have changed the outcome of the verdict.

JAGGER: Her lawyer was not only disbarred, he was put in jail because in another case, he tried to get a bribe from one of the women that he was representing. Therefore, she never had a proper legal representation on the time when she got the death penalty.

MATALIN: A federal appeals court looked at all of that. She had years of appeals and the court -- the Board of Pardon and Parole looked at all of that. Subsequent years -- years, years of appeals, looked at all of the facts that you've just entered and said they would not have changed the outcome of the original verdict.

JAGGER: She was a battered woman. She had mental impairment. She was raped when she was five years of age. She has all the reasons for the Board of Pardons and Parole, according to a legislation that was passed in 1991, to have -- review her case, but that never happened. In fact, the Board of Pardons and Parole in Texas have only review one case.

PRESS: Governor Keating, I'd also like to get your take on this latest execution and the case of Betty Lou Beets. When Governor Bush left California last night to go back to Texas, he said, you know, I asked the question I always ask: Is she guilty of the crimes for which she was charged?

I think we could all agree that that's not the only question that has to be asked. There are some other questions. Like one is: this woman's life history. She is -- was a victim of sexual and physical and psychological abuse. She was raped when she was five. Many men abused her starting with her father and ending up with her fifth husband.

Experts have interviewed her, say she's a classic victim of Battered Woman Syndrome who finally acted in self-defense. Now, I'm not saying that she's -- you know, she should have been let free or anything, but wouldn't you at least agree that that should have been entered into her trial, and it never was?

GOVERNOR FRANK KEATING (R), OKLAHOMA: Well, Bill, I don't have knowledge of all of the circumstances of that trial. And I certainly respect Miss Jagger's sincerity with her opinion, but let's be realistic about this particular lady. She shot one of her husbands, another husband was dug up under a shed. Another husband, a third, was dug up under the wishing well.

This woman was no "Grandma Moses." Whether her circumstances as a youngster would suggest that she had a twisted, perverted, even a dangerous personality, that's something that certainly is relevant, but it's not dispositive. The issue: Did she have a reasonable assistance of counsel? All of the courts found that she did. The Pardon and Parole Board found that she did.

And this is a woman who took another life viciously, premeditatedly. And in my judgment, George Bush did exactly the right thing. I would have done the same thing.

PRESS: Well...

KEATING: I look at the recommendation of the Pardon and Parole Board and act accordingly.

PRESS: Well, Governor, I have to disagree. Not everybody has said she had a competent attorney. In fact, as Miss Jagger pointed out, her attorney ended up -- later ended up in jail. And he has admitted -- you know, remember she was convicted of killing for the insurance money, this fifth husband. And her attorney admitted that she never even knew about the insurance money until he went to her, told her about it, and made a deal with her that he would get part of the money.

Here is her -- by the way, that was never entered into trial. Here's her new defense attorney, how he explained it this morning on CNN. Please listen.


JOSEPH MARGULIES, BEETS' DEFENSE ATTORNEY: We also know that he withheld the life-saving information about Betty's role in this offense. Betty's charged with murder for remuneration. They had to prove that she'd killed Jimmy Don Beets for the purpose of securing those benefits. But this lawyer could have testified that he was the one who identified the existence of the benefits. He identified their existence, in order to get a share of their return and told Betty that they were out there.


KEATING: Well...

PRESS: So you see, Governor, he never told the court that. He never testified. She's clearly the victim of a crooked lawyer. Again, I'm not saying she's "Grandma Moses," but wouldn't you agree that should have been entered into the record?

KEATING: Well, Bill, what I'm saying is that, all of this is advocacy outside the record. All I know is that in the system -- and I've been an FBI agent. I've been U.S. Attorney, supervised nationally all the federal prosecutions in the United States. There is extraordinary effort -- the average appeals process is 10 years, in Oklahoma, it's 12 years -- extraordinary effort to make sure that people have: A, adequate counsel. That's the fastest way to get a case boomeranged back to court.

The fact that all the facts were not able...

PRESS: But, Governor...

KEATING: ... developed in court. And secondly, the -- let me just say this, Bill -- the -- secondly, the question is: Did you do it? Here, there was absolutely no question about her culpability and regrettably, in Texas, regrettably in most of the United States, the action of the court, after a long, lengthy processes...

PRESS: OK, but...

KEATING: ... excludes things that are alien, if not hostile to the fact pattern. I mean I don't know...

PRESS: Very quickly...

KEATING: ... what could have been introduced...

PRESS: OK, Governor...

KEATING: But the reality is the facts were developed.

PRESS: Very quickly, and maybe I could get a -- ask respectfully for a yes or no answer. I mean, given all of these questions that have been raised, don't you think if there was ever a candidate for a 30-day stay of execution to be sure all of these questions were answered, she'd be the one?

KEATING: Well, again, as I said, the reality is the best way to boomerang a case back to court for a new trial is incompetent counsel, and that was examined and rejected.

PRESS: OK. MATALIN: And let me just reiterate that point, Miss Jagger, and then we can move on. The incompetent counsel -- subsequent to that incompetent counsel, both the abuse and the second instance of the benefits was raised on appeal and rejected by the appellate court. All of that was entered and rejected as it would not have been dispositive in the original verdict.

Now -- but let's move on. Her son, the son of the fifth husband that was murdered said:

"Ever since my dad was murdered, all I have heard was Betty Lou this and Betty Lou that. Well, what about Jimmy Don? I've spent 17 years not having my father, and my kids will spend their whole lives not knowing their granddaddy."

She buried him in a garden! Jimmy -- the son there said that the mom watered his father every day and that his mother was never abused by his father. What about justice for the victims?

JAGGER: Well, then I can respond to you that the two sisters gave a press conference where they talked about the abuses that her mother endured, not only by this father, where he -- where she was sexually abused, but as well by other of her husbands. And they talked about her being at gunpoint and being made to eat the gravel. And so there is two sides to the story.

And what I would like to ask Governor Bush is, wouldn't it have been fair to give him a 30-day reprieval so that we could have really to look into all of these cases to establish that she was or she was not a battered woman and whether she deserved to have her sentence commuted?

MATALIN: Can I just say for the third time, the abuse was submitted in the appellate process. It's been submitted. You're acting -- you're giving the perception -- you're allowing viewers to infer that none of this information was ever entered into the appellate system. And if there were only 30 more days, you'd find new information. All of that information has been considered.

JAGGER: It never was introduced in the beginning of her trial, because her lawyer did not represent her and give her due process. So how could it have been a proper legal representation for her when this man later on was disbarred and was sent to jail?

MATALIN: It's called the appellate process.

When we come back, we'll talk about the Texas system and if it has -- would -- could possibly have did irregularities that caused the Illinois governor to call for a moratorium.

Stay with us on CROSSFIRE.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. After facing multiple overturned cases on death row, the pro- death penalty Illinois governor imposed a state moratorium on capital punishment, reinvigorating the never-ending national struggle over the issue. Arguing against the death penalty is Bianca Jagger of Amnesty International, and for capital punishment, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating -- Bill.

PRESS: Governor, one of your fellow Republican governors also pro-death penalty, Governor George Ryan of Illinois. As you know recently said there should be a moratorium on executions in his state because -- quote -- he, said, "I can not support a system which in its administration has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare: the state's taking of innocent life.

Now surely, Governor Keating, you don't believe that that could happen only in the state of Illinois, do you?

KEATING: No, but I think Governor Ryan acted absolutely appropriately. He looked at the system in his state. Remember historically, after the Haymarket Bombing, there was a situation where a governor in the 19th century commuted a sentence of several people who were wrongfully convicted. Governor Ryan concluded that there was too much error in the system. He needed to pause and have each of the cases examined, DNA testing and the like, and I think that's appropriate. I think I would have approached it a little bit differently.

PRESS: OK, governor I have to interrupt, because we have to go to breaking news now.


PRESS: Yes, we have been listening to comments by James Beets and Rodney Baker. They're commenting on the death by lethal execution -- by lethal injection tonight of their stepmother Betty Lou Beets, accused and convicted and executed tonight for killing their father tonight.

At this point, I just want to thank our guests, sorry we didn't get back to you. Governor Keating and Bianca Jagger, thank you both for joining us. We'll continue this debate for sure another time. And Mary Matalin and I will be back with closing comments.


PRESS: Mary, you know, it's ridiculous to think that innocent people have been put to death only in the state of Illinois, so of course there should be a national moratorium until we get this thing fixed, but that begs the question, we'll never fix it. The real question is, should we get rid of the death penalty altogether because it is so unfairly applied? And the answer is, absolutely yes.

MATALIN: I know this is hard for you to believe, but Governor Bush instituted reforms in 1995 that eradicated the problems they have in Illinois. They get all kinds of special appellate processing. You just heard that family there tonight after almost 20 years of going through this agony, the state of Texas did the right thing tonight. That family's justice was served.

PRESS: Let me tell you about the state of Texas, they have no public defenders in the state of Texas. They wanted to have them, Bush opposed the legislation. The board of paroles and prisons...

MATALIN: You're just wrong. That's wrong.

PRESS: I am right. The board of paroles and prisons has no public meetings. They fax in their votes. Bush opposed legislation to open them up. Number three, in Texas, they execute retarded people.

MATALIN: No, they do not.

PRESS: There was a bill passed to do away with it, Bush vetoed the bill.

MATALIN: No, they do not. Not juveniles, not the insane, not the incompetent.

PRESS: Absolutely. He opposed all three.

You're totally wrong.

MATALIN: In capital cases, they get two trial lawyers...

PRESS: Bush is the king of the death penalty, 120, Mary, 120.

MATALIN: ... and they get two appellate lawyers. I don't know where you get this stuff.

PRESS: It's sick.

MATALIN: From the Gore campaign, this is totally wrong.

PRESS: No, from every newspaper in Texas, Bush is the king killer of the country.

MATALIN: That is totally wrong. That is wrong.

PRESS: From the left, I am Bill Press, good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: I am Mary Matalin, join us again tomorrow night.


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