Will Texas Execute Karla Faye Tucker?

AUSTIN, Texas—Texas is experiencing a phenomenon that is about as rare as a snowstorm in Laredo—a widespread outcry about a pending execution. And for a change, the Texas Catholic Conference isn't a lone voice in the Lone Star State.

During the past 20 years, Texas has established a well-earned reputation as a sort of mecca for capital punishment. The state leads the nation with 144 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Last year alone, 37 convicted killers were put to death—a full 50% of all the executions in the country and the highest one-year total by any state in this era.

Texas has permitted the execution of men who are mentally retarded or mentally ill, and in 1997 gave a lethal injection to a man who was almost surely innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. None of these cases, however, has garnered the same attention as that of Houston pickax killer Karla Faye Tucker.

If the state goes through with the scheduled Feb. 3 lethal injection, Tucker would be the first Texas woman to receive the death penalty since 1863. Her gender is undoubtedly a factor in the sympathy she has garnered. Texas Monthly editor Gregory Curtis went so far as to write in the October issue of the magazine that “the fact that Texas has not executed a woman for 134 years means that it is something that we as a culture do not sanction in our hearts. There must be reasons, good reasons, that we can sense but cannot articulate.”

Nevertheless, those appealing to Gov. George W. Bush and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Tucker's sentence do not cite her gender but her remarkable—and by all accounts genuine—Christian conversion, her repentance for the crime and the extenuating circumstances of her life experience leading up to the murders she admits to committing.

“We're against all executions and [Tucker's] seems to be one where there's plenty of reason not to take her life,” said Brother Richard Daly CSC, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference. “By all accounts, this is a person who has radically transformed her life. All kinds of people, including a sibling of one of the victims, have asked for clemency. It's another reason why we ought to have life without parole as an option for juries.”

Tucker has confessed to her role in a grisly 1983 double murder and even testified against her former boyfriend who helped her kill Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton while they slept in their bed.

“Fourteen and a half years ago, I placed no value on human life, even my own. I just flat didn't care,” Tucker told Reuters in a recent prison interview. “But now there is love in me that could spread out to this whole world 10 times and more.”

To fully appreciate the depth of Tucker's apparent conversion, it is necessary to recount her life and the horrible crime that landed her on death row.

With her mother's approval and cooperation, Tucker began using drugs at age eight, and was shooting heroin by age 10. Like her mother, she turned to prostitution to support her habit after dropping out of school in the seventh grade.

When she was 23, after a three-day binge of drug and alcohol consumption, she and her boyfriend, Daniel Ryan Garrett (who has since died of natural causes in prison), broke into Dean's home to steal motorcycle parts. Finding Dean sleeping in his bed with Thornton, the intruders used a hammer and pickax to slay them. When police found the victims, the pickax was still embedded in the woman's torso.

Later, a police wiretap caught Tucker bragging that she experienced pleasure each time she swung the pickax.

While in prison, Tucker became a born-again Christian, married her former prison minister, received her high school equivalency diploma, and began a prison-based ministry aimed at preventing young people from becoming hardened criminals.

Her supporters now include one of the detectives who built the case against her, a prosecutor who helped convict her, a juror who sat on the trial, and a sister of one of the victims. Also in her corner is the Rev. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, who is not opposed to the death penalty.

Brother Daly has written to both Bush and the Board of Pardons and Paroles (which must recommend the commutation of a death sentence to the governor before he can act) asking that her life be spared. In his three years in office, Bush has never sought a commutation, and no death sentence has been commuted in Texas since capital punishment was reinstated.

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty was to hold a Jan. 16 rally outside the state Capitol in Austin to appeal to Bush, a possible presidential contender in 2000, whose decision either way has the potential for sharp criticism from political foes.

If he commutes the sentence, it will surely be noted that Tucker is a white woman while the overwhelming majority of those on death row are black or Hispanic. He also stands to be called soft on crime. If he allows the execution to be carried out, he could be viewed as a heartless governor who stood by while a repentant, Christian woman was killed.

“It's not the fact that she's a woman that interests me,” said Mary Berwick, a member of the coalition's board and the organizer of the rally. “Karla Faye herself and her attorneys will say it's not because she is a woman [that her sentence should be commuted] but because she is a key witness to the possibility of total conversion. She has tried, in her years of incarceration, to make amends within the limits that she can in the prison system.”

Berwick, who is also on the board of Pax Christi Texas, added, “Those of us who live here are tired of the reputation Texas has as the death penalty capital of the world.”

Sensing that public opinion may actually become a factor in whether or not Tucker dies, Berwick said the rally would not focus on the question of the death penalty itself.

“We are well aware that there are people who feel [convicted Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh should fry for what he did but are against this one particular execution,” she said.

Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) included the Church's strongest language against the practice to date.

The Pope acknowledged that public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender adequate punishment for the crime. That punishment, he wrote, should not include the death penalty except in cases “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”

He added, “Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The 21 bishops of Texas's 14 dioceses released a statement last Oct. 18 calling for the abolition of the state's death penalty. “We sympathize with the profound pain of the victims of brutal crimes, nevertheless, we believe that the compassionate example of Christ calls us to respect the God-given image found even in hardened criminals,” they wrote.

The U.S. bishops issued its most comprehensive statement against the death penalty in 1980, saying, “We believe that in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.”

Dan Misleh, policy adviser on criminal justice for the U.S. Catholic Conference, told the Register that the Tucker case illustrates an important component of the bishops' statement.

“One of the points the bishops make is that God's grace works in every life, even those who have committed horrible crimes,” he said. “It proves people can change. We ought to allow that to happen rather than eliminate the possibility through execution.”

Even as he works to have her life spared, Brother Daly at the Texas Catholic Conference acknowledges that some good can come out of the case even if the state goes through with the execution.

“There's a great irony in the Tucker case,” he said. “If they would execute her, it might have the effect of turning more people against the death penalty. If you can visualize … that last scene in Dead Man Walking, but with a woman being executed, that would be pretty powerful. Her death might do more to end the death-penalty attitude in Texas than anything we've done up till now.”

Dennis Poust writes from Austin, Texas.