Improbably, Betty Lou Beets's Death Is News

The execution of a convicted murderer generates headlines nationwide. Apparently, America still finds it difficult to execute a woman...

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Why was everyone so caught up in the case of Betty Lou Beets? Beets, who was executed by lethal injection Thursday evening, was convicted in 1985 of murdering her fifth husband. For 15 years, her fate had raised little attention. Beyond the classic arguments between anti- and pro-death penalty factions, there is little to differentiate this case from scores of others that play out each year. So why did Beets's predicament draw such an audience? It's not because it's a rarity; in Texas, this sort of story is almost routine. Since reinstating the death penalty in 1982, Texas has executed 207 people — 120 of them during George W. Bush's five-year tenure as governor. On a national scale, Beets' situation didn't have much cachet either; Florida executed two convicted murderers this week alone. We should have become used to this by now.

There has been no major outcry or charges of an inept defense team, as is so often the case in high-profile death penalty cases. "This is not one of the problem cases in Texas," says TIME Austin correspondent Sam Gwynne. "This isn't one of those terribly egregious cases where there's tons of evidence that the trial was botched." Beets's defense team claims she was convicted by a jury that wasn't told she was abused by one or more of her husbands, but no one is accusing the defense attorneys of mishandling the case. Which brings us back to the original question: Why did this rather conventional case capture the national spotlight? Probably for two reasons: One, Beets was a woman, and for whatever reason, America, while generally supportive of the death penalty, still finds it difficult to execute females. Second, she was a great-grandmother, and most headlines referring to the case use that identification, as in "Great-Grandmother's Time Is Running Out," or "Will Texas Kill Great-Grandmother?" Images of a seemingly nice old lady doomed to die always play well with the media. The other reason Beets is attracting so much attention is that her case presents a perfect opportunity for Governor Bush's opposition to publicly question his "compassionate conservatism." Bush was unmoved by pleas for Beets's life; when asked Thursday whether he had any plans to halt the execution, he brushed off any lingering doubts and expressed boundless confidence in the Texas legal system. "I will ask myself one question," he said. "Is she guilty of the crime?"