Texas Executes Born-Again Woman After Appeal Fails

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The virtual moratorium on female executions in Texas was lifted Tuesday evening, when a lethal dose of sodium thiopental filled the veins of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman put to death here in more than a century.

The petite 38-year-old inmate--a convicted pickax-murderer who later declared herself a born-again Christian--used her final minutes to thank her family, apologize to her victims and reaffirm her faith. "I am going to be face to face with Jesus now," she said, her arms outstretched on the death row gurney. "I will see you all when you get there."

She coughed twice, let out a soft groan, then fell silent. A final meal of peach slices, a banana and a tossed salad was left untouched.

The husband of one of her victims, now ravaged by diabetes, stared back at Tucker from his wheelchair in the viewing area. "Here she comes, baby doll," Richard Thornton, 48, muttered, presumably to his slain wife, Deborah, according to media witnesses. "She's all yours."

With her plea for mercy denied Monday by the Texas parole board and her challenge to the state's commutation process rejected Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court, Tucker's sole hope had been for Gov. George W. Bush to issue a onetime, 30-day reprieve. Bush, a potential presidential contender, briefly held up the countdown to Tucker's death while he waited for the justices to rule on one final appeal. But once that was turned down, he kept his vow to intercede only if there were compelling legal grounds--and not for reasons of piety or gender.

"My responsibility is to make sure our laws are enforced fairly and evenly without preference or special treatment," Bush said in a statement. "Judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority." He added: "May God bless Karla Faye Tucker and may God bless her victims and their families."

As hundreds of death penalty foes and supporters clamored for attention outside the Huntsville prison--surrounded by nearly as many camera crews and reporters--it was clear that Tucker had at least succeeded in putting a human face on the question of capital punishment and rekindling the debate over its morality, even in the home of the nation's most active death chamber.

Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, only one other U.S. woman has been executed--North Carolina serial poisoner Velma Barfield, who was put to death in 1984. During those two decades, 435 men have been executed, nearly a third of them in Texas. But few of those Texans, especially in recent years, received even a fraction of the publicity or the sympathy that was heaped upon Tucker.

Execution days in this wooded town 70 miles north of Houston are usually indistinguishable from any other day. Protesters, if they bother to show up, rarely number more than a dozen. TV crews are nonexistent. Witness seats often go vacant. On Tuesday, however, the scene around the prison's Ellis Unit was reminiscent of a celebrity trial. College students from nearby Sam Houston State chanted for her death. Anti-death penalty activists played a video, projected on a giant screen, showing Tucker's sign-language interpretation of an inspirational hymn.

"Listen," one of them pleaded into a microphone. "The lady is going to die in a few minutes."

He was greeted with jeers from the college kids, some waving crude hand-lettered placards. "Ax and you shall receive," read one.

Tucker's supporters, including conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, have argued that the importance of her case lies not in her sex, but in the authenticity and depth of her spiritual conversion. They insist that she had become remorseful, repentant and responsible, a devout believer so transformed from the drugged-out prostitute who pick-axed two sleeping people to death nearly 15 years ago in Houston that she could hardly be said to be the same person.

"Although I did take two lives, I am not a murderer now," Tucker told The Times in a December interview. "I am a new creation in Christ. The old has completely passed away."

But critics have pointed out that men who also claimed similar conversions have been routinely executed in Texas, their newfound faith greeted with either an arched eyebrow or a shrug. Even if there was a way to verify her turnaround--and obviously, skeptics note, no foolproof gauge exists--what difference should it make? A jury sent her to death row to die, after all, not to be rehabilitated.

"It's sobering, but that's the way the death penalty is," said Dick Weinhold, chairman of the Texas Christian Coalition, who is friends with Robertson but disagreed with him on Tucker's fate. "While I have no doubt about the transformation in her life, she wasn't sentenced yesterday, and I think the person who was sentenced is not a pretty picture."

The fact that a death penalty case is even being debated in Texas says something about the nerve that Tucker has struck. A poll conducted last month by the Dallas Morning News found that, although 75% of Texans support capital punishment, only 45% favored it being applied in her case. A Houston Chronicle poll published the following week found that 48% believed Tucker should die, but 24% said her sentence should be commuted to life and 27% said they did not know enough about her to make a decision.

That is a remarkable shift, considering that Houston juries deliver more death verdicts than in any other jurisdiction of the nation. "I think we're always less willing to execute someone if we have personalized them--if we know things about their family or their history or their life," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. "Because women's cases are fewer, there's a chance to get to know them better."

Anybody who knew Tucker in the summer of 1983 would have been horrified. A former rock 'n' roll groupie who was turning tricks and shooting up heroin before she was old enough to drive, Tucker set out with her bartender boyfriend, Daniel Ryan Garrett, to steal some motorcycle parts from a fellow biker who had once dripped Harley Davidson oil on her living room floor. During the burglary, she ended up mauling Jerry Lynn Dean with a pickax, then turned it on Deborah Ruth Thornton, a stranger who had gone to a party that day and ended up in his bed.

Tucker later boasted that she experienced an orgasm each time she swung the ax, a detail that helped make her crime among the most lurid in Houston history. In her appeals, she recounted her religious awakening, her marriage to a prison minister and their desire to help save lives that were once as troubled as her own. She also challenged the state's commutation process, noting that the Board of Pardons and Paroles has never voted to rescind a death sentence.

A state appeals court justice, Morris Overstreet, agreed with her that "clemency law in Texas is legal fiction at best." But in rejecting her plea, he added that any reforms to that procedure would have to come from the Legislature, not the courts.

"The applicant," he wrote, "does not have a constitutional right to mercy."

Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this story.

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