A Prisoner of Circumstance

Rachel Better never worried about her stateless status until the INS locked her up. Then it was too late.

In a phone interview from Mannheim, her mother Antonia Better remembers talking to Rachel the night before she left. "She was sitting in my home, and she said 'Muti' -- that's the German expression for mother -- 'Maybe I look sad, but don't think that he is the same way he was before.' I said, 'Bubba' -- we call her Bubba, this is the Hebrew word for doll -- 'You are responsible for your own actions. You don't have to look for excuses. Because I don't know this man. And if you think it's okay, it's okay. But don't think you will change a man who is grown up. You will never change anyone.'"

Back in Florida, Rachel's resolve quickly weakened. The first few days had been happy, but then the arguments started. Beatings soon followed. By the day of Bertram's death, she had been living with him for more than three weeks. They had gone on a sightseeing trip to a nearby island, and they planned to meet another couple for dinner that evening. But when they got back to the apartment, the fight started.

Rachel doesn't know how the quarrel began. She says Bertram slapped her face and bent her right arm painfully behind her back, telling her that he could easily break her arms, her nose, or her back. A neighbor named Van Smith heard them fighting. He later gave a sworn statement to the police: "I remember the male saying, 'If you don't abide by my rules, I'll shoot you.'"

When Bertram let Rachel go, she ran to the corner store and called an employee at the fruit stand. This time she was really leaving. The employee accompanied her back to the apartment so she could gather up her clothes. Rachel says Bertram continued to insult and belittle her. Distraught, she opened the drawer where she had stashed her German currency and saw his gun, a .38-caliber pistol.

Rachel claims she thought the gun was unloaded. "He had always played around with this gun, saying, 'What if I would shoot you?' and I said, 'Go ahead,' and he said there were no bullets in it."

Rachel also says she had never handled a weapon before and that when she picked it up, she pointed it at the ceiling. Trying to picture the scene, she sees Bertram standing off to her side and thinks he must have stepped into the line of fire as the gun went off. She doesn't remember anything -- not even pulling the trigger or hearing the sound of the shot -- except Bertram falling to the ground. He died several hours later from a chest wound. After the shooting Rachel immediately called 911. When the police came, she confessed on the spot.

Following the advice of her attorney, Robert Bader, Rachel pled no contest to second-degree murder with a firearm. She did not attempt to argue self-defense or to claim the battered wife syndrome, though Robert Ford, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case, says he believes Rachel might have been exonerated had she gone to trial. Ford, who speaks German, heard about Bertram's alleged abuse from Rachel's sisters. "I'm no lie detector, but these people seemed pretty straightforward," he asserts.

Looking back, Rachel questions Bader's advice, especially because her witnesses were ready to fly to Florida to testify. But she felt she was forced to go along with the plea bargain. "I was kind of at his mercy because I knew nothing about the American legal system," she sighs. "I was too naive." Bader would not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Rachel was sentenced to seven years in prison. Her sister Martina, who was present in court, says the judge announced that he gave Rachel the shortest possible term under state sentencing guidelines because she was also a victim.

Rachel's jail time was reduced to just over three years: State gain-time rules then in effect automatically reduced sentences by one-third, and she was also given credit for work and good behavior. The time passed quickly. "I think I took a very philosophical point of view," Rachel comments. "I tried to make the best of it. After the nightmare I had been through with this man, when I first came to prison I felt like I was in heaven. I felt totally relieved. I had become psychically very ill, and it took me a long time to recover. Actually, it helped me to be in prison. I was taken out of the real world and put in an environment where I could concentrate on healing. I didn't have to worry about a job, a landlord. Of course there are things in prison that you don't like, but I was taken out of the problems I had before."

On April 20, 1993, after slightly less than six months in prison at the Broward Correctional Institution, Rachel was brought before an immigration judge. He asked her how she felt about being deported. "I said, 'That's fine with me. I never wanted to stay here,'" Rachel recounts. A formal deportation order was drawn up, but Rachel was told she would have to serve her sentence before the order would be executed.

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