AUSTIN, Texas -- For the ragtag crew of protesters milling behind the governor's mansion yesterday, it was just business as usual, a futile death watch biding the hours before the 120th execution on Gov. George W. Bush's watch.
But for Bush, the expected execution tonight of Betty Lou Beets comes at a particularly sensitive time. Ever since Gov. George Ryan of Illinois -- like Bush, a Republican -- halted all executions in his state Jan. 31, the death penalty has re-emerged as a political issue.
Ryan's actions set off a political chain reaction on an issue that had seemed moribund. It triggered a push in Congress to guarantee death-row inmates access to DNA testing. Members of Congress have urged President Clinton to institute a moratorium on federal executions. The Justice Department has launched an inquiry into the disproportionate executions of minorities.
And now, Bush is set to reject the tearful clemency appeals of Beets, a 62-year-old great-grandmother who contends that she was battered by the two husbands she was accused of murdering. Under the Texas Constitution, even if Bush wanted to spare the life of a death-row inmate, he has the power only to grant a 30-day reprieve while trying to persuade the state Board of Pardons and Parole to lift the death sentence.
But that has not dissuaded death penalty opponents from focusing on Bush's record.
Beets would be the ninth execution this year, a year when Texas has administered lethal injections to Larry Robison, who was determined to be mentally ill when he went on a murderous rampage, and Glen McGinnis, who was 17 when he killed a laundry clerk during a 1990 robbery.
"There doesn't seem to be any limits to who and how many," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who took a shot at Bush's self-proclaimed compassionate conservatism. "As people examine this, they may wonder where the compassion is."
Beets is a cause celebre from central casting -- a gray-haired matron, nearly deaf from a childhood bout of measles, who was raised in poverty by an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother and who says she was abused throughout her life. She would be only the second woman executed in Texas and the fourth in the nation since the death penalty was reinstated in 1979.
"I want to live," Beets proclaims on her Web site. "I want my grand-babies and all grand-babies out there to know there is hope and help, that there are people who can and will help, that they can fight back in a way they will not be hurt for it."
But Dianne Clements, president of Justice For All, a Houston-based victims' rights group, said Beets hardly deserves sympathy.
Beets was convicted of the murder in 1983 of her fifth husband. His body was found in the yard of their trailer home outside Gun Barrel City, near the body of her fourth husband. Both men had been shot in the back of the head.
Beets was indicted in her fourth husband's murder but never tried. She also shot her third husband, but he recovered, and she was charged only with misdemeanor offenses.
Beets argued that her children committed the murder, and still insists she had nothing to do with her husbands' deaths. Only now is she proclaiming that she was the victim of domestic abuse: beatings, rape, and strangulation.
"It's crazy," Clements said. "This whole thing is absurd, the way it is twisted and presented to the public."
But the Beets' death penalty has given opponents of the death penalty another reason to shine a light on Bush.
Though most Americans support the death penalty, opponents insist voters will recoil at the sheer volume of criminals put to death under Bush's administration. Last year, of the 98 people who were put to death nationwide, 35 -- more than a third -- met their fate in Texas. The next closest state, Virginia, executed 14.
Bush has taken political heat for an interview in which he mocked Karla Faye Tucker's plea for her life before she, too, was executed in Texas for murder.
But the Bush record extends beyond volume. In the last legislative session, the Texas State Senate approved a bill forbidding the execution of the mentally ill. But it died in the House after the governor declared, "I like the law the way it is right now."
Bush vetoed a bill that would have created a state public defender system, replacing an oft-criticized process that relies on judges to assign counsel for cases they will try. Critics say those judges generally favor the death penalty and appoint lawyers who will offer the least resistance.
But Terral Smith, Bush's legislative director, said the bill was vetoed because of opposition from Texas judges who feared that their power would be taken away. And Bush contends that the legislation would have done nothing to improve representation for capital murder defendants.
Yet it was not until Ryan's highly publicized moratorium on executions that Bush began fielding questions on his own death penalty policies. Thirteen people scheduled to die in Illinois had been exonerated, and Ryan concluded that the system was "fraught with error."
Since Ryan's decision, Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, has urged Clinton to declare a federal moratorium. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has introduced legislation that would mandate the use of DNA testing in capital cases.
This week, two condemned killers on Texas' death row seized a female guard, holding her hostage while demanding a moratorium on executions in the Lone Star state.
Bush has been asked whether he would follow Ryan's lead. His answers have been a curt "no."
"Everybody who's been executed [in Texas] is guilty of the crime of which they've been convicted," Bush said.
Dieter noted that seven Texas death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. In the most celebrated cases, outside forces -- not the state legal system -- were responsible for winning the convicts' freedom.
Randall Dale Adams was freed in 1989 after his case was publicized in the film "The Thin Blue Line." Federico Macias was released in 1993 after a volunteer attorney from Washington embraced his cause.
In 1994, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, a Reagan appointee, threw out the conviction of Ricardo Aidape Guerra in the death of a police officer, saying, "The police officers' and the prosecutors' actions described in these findings were intentional, were done in bad faith, and are outrageous."
Proponents of the death penalty say the governor has good reason for his confidence. Convicted killers have not been rushed to the death chamber. The 35 inmates executed last year spent a total of 439 years on death row, according to Justice For All.
Aaron Foust was executed less than a year after his offense, but Robert White languished on death row for 25 years.
When the 100th convict was executed on Bush's watch, Justice For All pointed out that the victims of those 100 included 26 children, 19 senior citizens, and 90 women. The 100 served a total of 1,182 years on death row.