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Tuesday, February 29, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 105

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News from the horrid halls of death row 

Brandon Moeller

Odell Barnes Jr. will die tomorrow from a lethal injection, given by the State of Texas. Barnes was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing Helen Bass. 

Barnes does not contend that he is an innocent man. He admits to other crimes, including robbery and rape. Yet he argues he did not kill Bass.

New evidence has been gathered to support this. A Houston Press story, which ran Jan. 27, states his case in detail. 

Yet even a free press can't always save a person condemned to die by a jury of his peers. Texas Governor George W. Bush could, but that wouldn't reflect his opinion that every convict on Texas' death row is guilty and that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is one of the best in the nation.

Bush has been governor of this perfect state for five years and in that time 121 inmates have been put to death. He has only halted one execution, citing the case was based on "flimsy evidence." 

So far this year, nine Texas inmates have been executed and Texas leads the nation in capital punishment. 208 inmates have been executed since the Texas ban on the death penalty was lifted in 1982.

One of many things wrong with this system is that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the people who decide if they should suggest clemency to Bush, never meets to consider petitions. It merely polls its members in such cases. Other states don't operate in such a fashion -- only Texas, with Bush at the helm.

It seems as if Bush has gotten comfortable in his position. To say the current system is one of the best in the nation, and to leave it at that, as if improvement is impossible and unnecessary, is reason enough to not take anything that comes from his lips seriously. 

Bush is currently more concerned with his Presidential race than the truth regarding some of these recently put-to-death inmates. 

Case in point: James Beathard. Beathard was executed Dec. 9, 1999 for the murder of Gene Hathorn Sr., his wife Linda Sue Hathorn and their son Marcus. The pivotal point of the prosecution's testimony relied heavily on none other than Gene Hathorn Jr., who was the real killer. His testimony was later recanted as Hathorn Jr. later admitted that he had committed the murders of his family members all on his own.

Beathard had the following to say in his last statement, which was published in the Texas Observer (and oddly, censored from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Web site, which has most of the last statements from other prisoners, as well as what they requested for their last meal): "The clemency process is already a joke, 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."

Surely, not everyone is innocent of the crimes they are convicted of. Betty Lou Beets, age 62, was executed last week, becoming the second woman executed in Texas in modern times, and the fourth in the United States since the Supreme Court ruling which lifted the death penalty ban in 1976. Beets was convicted of the shooting death of her husband.

Prior to Beets' execution, numerous activists declared her trial did not present the fact that Beets has been sexually assaulted since the age of five, and by all of her previous husbands. They claimed her sentence was unfair due to clemency being granted to several other females who had similar cases; who were convicted of murder, but used the "battered woman syndrome" defense to avoid execution. 

Whether symptoms of this syndrome include killing two out of five husbands, stuffing their corpses in sleeping bags and burying them under a flower bed in the front lawn -- all for insurance money -- is still unknown at this time.

Poor conditions for Texas' death row inmates sparked a standoff last week when inmates Ponchai Wilkerson and Howard Guidry nabbed themselves a female guard and held her hostage with a homemade knife for 13 hours. Wilkerson and Guidry released her, after being allowed to talk to death penalty opponents about poor conditions. 

Many Texas death row inmates had their typewriters destroyed after a Thanksgiving 1998 riot, as a form of retaliation by prison guards. The prisoners are individually locked in tiny cells and are only allowed to leave one hour each day for exercise. 

These poor conditions and lack of personnel to staff the new Livingston "hell" facility is what caused the standoff, despite what Bush may want you to think. 

Moeller, a communication sophomore, 
can be reached at brandonmoeller@hotmail.com.

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