On November 9, 2022, the State of Texas executed 61-year-old Tracy Lane Beatty. He was the 577th person put to death by lethal injection in this State since 1982. Scores of these individuals were executed despite highly credible evidence of innocence; because prosecutorial and police misconduct led to their convictions; they killed no one but were executed under the State’s law of parties; they suffered from severe mental illness at the time of their executions; and, like Beatty, they were put to death for what was non-capital offenses.
The fundamental problem with the execution of Tracy Lane Beatty is this: whether his offense actually qualified as a death penalty-eligible offense.
In November 2003, Beatty was a 42-year-old criminal ne’er-do-well living with his 61-year-old mother, Carolyn Click, in her mobile home in the East Texas community of Whitehouse. He was unemployed, drinking heavily, and abusing drugs—all of which led to repeated violent and tumultuous arguments and fights with his mother. He was also on parole for a theft conviction obtained in Dallas County—the same county where he had previously been convicted for injury to a child.
Whether Beatty intended to kill his mother when he entered her mobile home on November 25, 2003, will never be known.
What is indisputably known is that he strangled his mother to death, burned her body, and buried her in the backyard of her mobile home. He confessed to that crime multiple times but never admitted that he knowingly intended to kill his mother.
Beatty was indicted for capital murder, not murder, and the Smith County District Attorney’s Office decided to seek the death penalty against him.
Under Texas Penal Code Section 1903, ten types of capital murder offenses qualify for the death penalty. One of those is murder during the commission or attempted commission of an underlying felony, including burglary. Other felons listed in Section 1903 included: committing or attempting to commit kidnapping, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or terroristic threat.
The State’s theory was that Beatty killed his mother during the commission of a robbery and during the commission of a burglary of her mobile home to get money to buy drugs.
To support this theory, the State presented the testimony of Betty McCarthy, a neighbor and close friend of Carolyn Click. She testified at trial that Click told her that she had told her son to move out of the mobile home because their relationship had soured.
After being instructed by the trial judge to choose between the robbery and burglary underlying felony as a basis for a death penalty finding, the jury selected burglary.
On direct appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), Beatty argued that he had “consent” from his mother to inhabit the mobile home, and that the only evidence presented by the State that he did not have consent to be in the mobile home was McCarthy’s second-hand testimony.
In an unpublished March 11, 2009 decision, the CCA casually dismissed this argument, finding that there was “some evidence” based on McCarthy’s testimony that a “rational factfinder” could conclude “beyond a reasonable doubt that [Beatty] left the house after Click told him to leave, and then returned later, entering with the intent to commit a felony, theft, or assault.”
The CCA made Beatty’s lack of “consent” to be in his mother’s mobile home the primary reason for the court’s upholding his death penalty verdict based on the underlying felony of burglary.
That is a flawed legal premise.
Under Texas law, a family member cannot be evicted from a shared occupancy absent the normal eviction process. “Under Texas law, you may not utilize “self-help” evictions to evict your family members. You cannot just physically remove them from the property. If there is a written lease, you can evict them for a breach of the lease as any other landlord could. If there is no written lease, you can evict them as a property owner would evict a squatter.”
The State did not offer any evidence that Carolyn Click had a written lease with her son. Once she granted shared occupancy in her mobile home to her son in October 2003, he became a “tenant” under Texas law, and she did not have the legal authority to tell him to “get out.”
Texas eviction laws provide that before a parent can order an adult child to “get out” of their residence, they must give the adult child an eviction notice and follow the tenant eviction process to force the removal of the adult child.
Beatty had a key to his mother’s mobile home, provided to him by her, that gave him free access as a tenant to that residence.
In a three-judge dissent from the CCA’s denial of Beatty’s direct appeal, Judge Cheryl Johnson, joined by two other judges, made this observation:
“The evidence of entry without consent, in this case, is thin, and the evidence of intent to commit a felony, theft, or assault even thinner. There is no doubt that [Beatty] killed Click; the issue is whether the burglary was proven and thus whether the offense is capital murder or murder.”
The issue of tenancy and lack of the eviction process was not developed at either Beatty’s trial or during his post-conviction process. The public record and court documents show that the only thing Carolyn Click did to remove her son from her mobile home was to tell him to get out. She did not go through the legal eviction process required under Texas law.
The simple fact is this: Tracy Lane Beatty did not commit a “burglary of an inhabited dwelling” on November 25, 2003, of his mother’s mobile home. He entered the mobile home with the right of tenancy. Granted, he killed his mother after entering the mobile home, which was a crime of “murder,” but it was not “capital murder” under Texas law.
In effect, on November 9, 2022, the State of Texas wrongfully executed a man for capital murder when his offense was non-capital murder.
What is particularly disturbing is the Smith County District Attorney’s decision to seek the death penalty in the Beatty case.
Was he a bad guy? Yes.
Was he legally eligible for the death penalty? No.
The State relied on lack of consent to support the underlying burglary theory. And, as Judge Johnson pointed out in her dissent, that evidence was “thin.” The only evidence was Betty McCarthy’s hearsay, dubious testimony at its best.
As can be determined from the public record, no one in the Beatty trial process considered or brought up the right of tenancy issue. Consent was the prosecutorial focus, while the defense focus was to undermine that theory.
Because of these trial process failings, a man not legally eligible for the death penalty under state law was executed by the State of Texas.
The Tracy Lane Beatty execution represents yet another example of just how flawed the Texas death penalty process is.