Killing a Killer

“My prayer is that [my case] would make, most especially the body of Christ, realize that God can redeem any life he wants to.… Life is precious, and if we believe life is precious in abortion, or in mercy killing, shouldn't we believe life is precious in the death penalty? Don't all those areas go together?”

—Karla Faye Tucker, in her last interview

Maybe Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed Feb. 3 by the state of Texas, did not die in vain. Not since Gary Gilmore's death by a Utah firing squad in 1977—the first prisoner put to death after the death penalty was reinstated in this country—has a case caused capital punishment to be so hotly debated. Since Gilmore's death, 436 prisoners have been executed in the United States—most of them with little fanfare. But Tucker's case moved even some hard-line death penalty proponents to waver in their insistence on “eye-for-an-eye” justice. Why Tucker? After all, she'd freely admitted to the brutal crime for which she was sentenced: a 1983 double murder she committed with a pickax while high on drugs.

What was it about Tucker's case that caused a change of heart among some capital punishment advocates? Her gender was certainly a factor; only one other woman has been executed since 1977. But being a woman was only part of it, according to David Dow, a University of Houston law professor. Dow, who has represented more than 20 death row prisoners, told The New York Times that Tucker possessed four other key characteristics that elicited sympathy. She was “white, attractive, articulate, and a Christian,” he said. Few death row prisoners are five for five on those counts.

Dow's point was that Tucker didn't match the public's collective image of what a person being put to death in a civilized country should look like. Furthermore, extensive stories and interviews in the media strengthened the case for preserving Tucker's life. The public heard about her ministering to other prisoners and sensed other desirable things about her: she seemed genuine in her conversion, she was charming, and charismatic—even good.

“I couldn't imagine how anybody could have committed such merciless, unthinkable acts and less than four years later, look as she did now,” author Beverly Lowry wrote about Tucker in the Feb. 9 issue of The New Yorker. “There was—I don't know how else to describe it—an old-fashioned sense of goodness about her.”

Tucker converted to Christianity four months after her arrest. Lowry notes that the transformation of this one-time ax murderer moved people not easily taken in by tricksters; the policeman who arrested her, the prosecutor who convicted her, her prison guards, and other unlikely persons became allies. Even televangelist Pat Robertson, one of the highest profile proponents of capital punishment, adopted her cause for clemency.

Not everyone was taken in by Karla Faye Tucker's charm, and not everyone believed in her conversion. Even if they did, politics got in the way of her sentence being commuted. The outpouring of appeals from around the world to state courts and the parole board failed. And pleas to spare her life—including one from Pope John Paul II—were not enough to move Gov. George W. Bush to spare her life.

When prison officials announced Tucker's death to a crowd gathered outside the Huntsville, Texas prison, they cheered and broke into a macabre celebratory chant: “Na na na na, hey, hey, hey, say good-bye.”

It was an eerie illustration of how “capital punishment diminishes all of us,” as Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., wrote in a letter to Bush two weeks before the execution.

Time and again it has been illustrated that the death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent to crime. Ardent support for it can only be attributed to a “revenge complex” in American society, as Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua described it in an interview last year with the Register. The cardinal also said that “some people see it as closure, but you can have closure in other ways.” The higher principle at stake, he stressed, is the inviolability of life—all life.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II used the story of Cain and Abel to show that that inviolability extends even to murderers. Quoting St. Ambrose, he wrote: “God, who preferred correction rather than the death of the sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.”

The fact remains that Tucker committed a heinous crime and deserved to live the rest of her days behind bars. But she admitted as much and sought sincere forgiveness for the mistakes of the life she'd left behind.

If a person's consistent actions over a 15-year period offer valid testimony, it hardly can be disputed that Tucker had truly been transformed, as she believed, by God's grace. Her rehabilitation seemed to reflect the fruit, described in Evangelium Vitae, of a humane society that provides “the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”

Karla Faye Tucker was a changed woman. The rub is that her transformation happened on death row. The woman who was injected with lethal chemicals by the state Feb. 3 was not the same one who'd come from a broken home, shot-up heroin at 10, turned to prostitution at 13, and committed a double murder at 24.

The Pope opposed the death penalty for Tucker not because she was a woman, or white, or attractive, or articulate, or Christian, but simply because, as he wrote in Evangelium Vitae, “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity.…”

But if killing a person with those characteristics has changed the thinking of some who believed capital punishment has a place in a just society, then Karla Faye Tucker's death might, as she hoped, have served a higher purpose.

Larry Montali is editor of the Register.