1999: James Beathard, on the word of a known liar

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

Murder is not a common occurrence in Trinity County, Texas. The shotgunning of three members of the Hathorn family in their trailer home on the evening of October 9, 1984 remains notorious, even among locals who were not yet born on the date of the crime.

Clues scattered at the crime scene, African-American human hairs and Kool cigarette butts, were supposed to convince authorities that a certain sort of suspect had killed Gene Hathorn, Sr., his wife Linda Hathorn, and their teenaged son Marcus Hathorn. Mr. Hathorn’s recent receipt of a $150,000 property settlement and his recent disputes with his elder son, Gene Hathorn, Jr., led law enforcement in a different direction. Less than one month after the bodies were found, Gene Hathorn, Jr., and his running buddy James Lee Beathard faced charges of capital murder.

Prosecutors developed evidence that Gene Hathorn, Jr., hatched the plot to kill his family in order to inherit his father’s new wealth. It seems he was unaware that his father had formally disinherited him three weeks before he was murdered.

James Beathard was first to stand trial.

Called to the witness stand by District Attorney Joe Price, Gene Hathorn, Jr., testified against Beathard, to devastating effect. Hathorn claimed that Beathard entered the trailer, killed all three victims, and planted the false clues, while he himself fired only one shot through a window. Beathard was sent to death row.

When the younger Hathorn was brought to trial, District Attorney Price reversed his theory from Beathard’s trial, depicting Hathorn as the “inside man” and the strategist who believed he had concocted the perfect crime. Gene Hathorn, Jr., joined James Lee Beathard on Texas’s death row. Hathorn recanted his testimony against Beathard. No appeals court took notice.

In the mid-1980s, Texas’s male death row occupied part of the aging, red brick and steel Ellis I prison unit outside Huntsville. For prisoners such as James Beathard and Gene Hathorn who conformed themselves to the rules, a considerable amount of communication with other prisoners and with the outside world remained possible. Each of these sons of East Texas soon found himself editor of a death row periodical, the Lamp of Hope in Hathorn’s case and the Texas Death Row Journal for Beathard. Over the years, Beathard emerged as a prolific letter-writer and essayist, publishing a brief nonfiction piece describing life on death row in the British Guardian Weekly in August, 1996.

Beathard’s talent as a correspondent won him considerable sympathy during his fourteen years on death row. As they exchanged letters, American playwright Bruce Graham fictionalized Beathard in his short play, Coyote on a Fence.

James Beathard’s intelligence and powers of articulation were unusual among death row prisoners. Since he could be trusted to exit and re-enter his cell with no fuss and to refrain from blithering forth psychotic delusions, he was sometimes trotted out when prison authorities needed a condemned man to meet the press.

James Beathard’s appeals ran out at last in 1999. He was executed, still protesting his innocence, on December 9th of that year.

His partner in crime, Gene Hathorn, Jr., won an appeal in 2009 based on his trial attorney’s failure to introduce evidence of his father’s abuse of him in childhood. He is now serving consecutive life sentences, reportedly working as a prison cook in general population.

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