Texas Kills Another Innocent Man

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

In March 1995 I published a piece entitled Texas Kills An Innocent Man, describing how Texas executed Jesse Dewayne Jacobs for firing a bullet that the state also convicted his sister of firing. Since they both could not have fired the same bullet, and the sister was convicted after him, I wrote that Texas had killed an innocent man.

I suggested in that article that convicting multiple people of the same act was probably business as usual for Texas prosecutors. In the New York Times for May 14, 2000, in an article on Texas executions, I found another example ("A Closer Look at Five Cases That Resulted in Executions of Texas Inmates," p. 30).

In 1984, a man named Gene Hathorn Jr. took a friend named James Lee Beathard to visit the Hathorn family. Hathorn's father, mother and brother ended up dead of shotgun blasts.

Beathard was tried first and Hathorn took the stand to testify that after Hathorn fired the initial blast through a window, Beathard went inside and finished the victims off. Beathard testified that he thought he was accompanying Hathorn on a drug deal and that when he fired into the house, Beathard ran away and hid in the woods. For the record, the name of the ingenious prosecutor in Beathard's case and Hathorn's was Joe L. Price, who told the jury:

"Hathorn might be a cold-blooded killer, but there hasn't been any evidence in this courtroom that says he is a liar. He is telling the truth."

Beathard was convicted and sentenced to die. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crimes; he was sentenced entirely on Hathorn's testimony.

Several months later, the ingenious Joe L. Price tried Hathorn, who took the stand in the penalty phase of the trial and testified again that Beathard had finished off the victims. Now Price told the jurors, if Beathard was telling the truth, "then I'm a one-eyed hunting dog."

He cross-examined Hathorn with extreme sarcasm, attacking his story about Beathard: "Ok, and here was this ol' boy that had never shot that pistol before....going into a house he had never been in before in his life, to attack two people that had some advance warning he was coming....Does that seem a little bit strange to you, Gene?"

Hathorn was also convicted and sentenced to die. A year later he recanted and supported Beathard's account, that Beathard had run into the woods when the shooting started. But Beathard couldn't get a new trial because Texas has a rule that new evidence can only be introduced up to thirty days after the original conviction.

James Beathard was executed last December 9 and Hathorn remains on death row.

I find little moral distinction between the ingenious Joe L. Price and Gene Hathorn when it comes to their regard for the truth. Hathorn tossed Price a lie and Price ran it into the end zone. That Price knew it was a lie became evident at Hathorn's trial when he told the jury it was. Both Hathorn and Price killed people; Hathorn used a gun, Price used the state of Texas to do it.

The governor of Illinois recently declared a moratorium on executions, though he is not against the death penalty. He saw too many flaws in his state's process, too many innocents convicted. Contrast Governor Bush, who says, "I'm confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas, under my watch"--that's an incredible 127--"has been guilty of the crime charged, and has had full access to the courts." But in his great state, the death penalty resource center was defunded by the Republican congress in 1996 and never replaced with anything by the state. Few Texas counties have public defenders; instead, defense attorneys are local lawyers, often inexperienced and incompetent, who are appointed on a patronage basis by the judge. Such lawyers rarely give the accused an aggressive defense. On three occasions, Texas courts have refused to grant death row inmates a new trial even when it was proved that their attorneys slept through the proceedings. Last year, Governor Bush vetoed a bill which would have given counties authority to set up public defender offices and would have curtailed the patronage system of appointments. On a recent episode of Meet the Press, the governor said he did not remember vetoing the bill and said he was for public defenders.

Texas specializes in killing marginal people who get themselves into ambiguous circumstances. And it does so with little regard for the truth.