The debate over Karla Faye Tucker's execution next month has everything and nothing to do with her sex.
Fairness dictates that it should not be a factor, that if we are to have a death penalty, it must apply equally to women as well as to men. The laws of Texas, home to the nation's most active death chamber, make no mention of gender in determining which killers should be condemned. It certainly made no difference to Tucker's two victims, both of whom died from a pickax in their chests.
But if it is so irrelevant, why has only one American woman been put to death since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976? Why has Texas, responsible for one out of every three U.S. executions, failed to execute a woman since the Civil War? Why has conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, a death penalty proponent, publicly pleaded for Tucker's life? And why have reporters from around the world lined up to interview her--"this sweet woman of God," as a "60 Minutes" piece recently gushed.
"If it was Karl Tucker instead of Karla Tucker, I don't think we'd be having this conversation," said Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University's College of Law and an expert on female executions. "Nobody says it, because it's not politically correct, but there is a gender bias in the system--a double standard for women and men."
Women, of course, do not kill as often as men. And when they do, their crimes tend to be mitigated by domestic conflict--striking back at an abusive husband, for instance--as opposed to the predatory slayings for which the death penalty is usually reserved.
Even so, the numbers remain skewed. Women account for one of every eight people arrested for murder, but only one of every 50 sentenced to death. They account for one of every 70 people on death row, but only 1 of the 432 actually put to death in the last two decades--the exception being North Carolina grandmother Velma Barfield, a serial poisoner who was executed in 1984 for slipping roach killer into her fiance's beer.
Tucker does not say that her Feb. 3 execution should be halted because she is a woman. Rather, she says it is because of the kind of woman she has become during her 14 years behind bars--caring, repentant and deeply religious, a born-again Christian married to a prison minister, who together believe they can help save souls as lost as Tucker's once was.
"This is not about me trying to save my life; this is about the power of God almighty to change a life," she said during an interview at the women's death row here in Central Texas, which houses seven of the nation's 48 condemned women. "The world may not agree with that. They may not think I deserve that. And quite frankly, I don't deserve that. But it's a free gift from God. He gave it to me and I received it. We all have the ability, after we've done something horrible, to make a change for the good."
Gender may not be an explicit component of her plea, but being a petite, photogenic, rosy-lipped woman of 38 with flowing brown curls has surely kept it from falling on deaf ears.
From Prostitute to Missionary
A former juror and the sister of one of Tucker's victims both have hailed her transformation from drugged-out prostitute to Bible-quoting missionary.
Pat Robertson, who does not make it a practice to rally behind death row inmates, calls Tucker an "extraordinary woman" whose "authentic spiritual conversion" cries out for mercy. "The cross is the ultimate symbol of God's love," he told viewers of his Christian Broadcasting Network. "Karla Faye came to that cross and she was forgiven."
Still, men of all faiths--not just evangelical Protestants but also Catholics, Muslims and other worshipers--are executed with regularity in Texas, their piety generally dismissed with a shrug. Victims-rights groups say such conversions are belated and immaterial at best, cynical and conniving at worst. Setting aside the question of its authenticity, why should Tucker's religious awakening carry any more weight?
"She's had her mercy," said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based judicial reform group. "She's had 14 years to put herself right by God."
Although Texas has not executed a woman since 1863, when Chipita Rodriguez was hanged for murdering a horse trader, all the signals coming from Gov. George W. Bush suggest that the state's historic squeamishness may be a thing of the past. Bush often speaks of the importance of faith and would value the support of religious conservatives like Robertson in a presidential bid. But he has never commuted or delayed a single death sentence, even as a record 37 were carried out in 1997 alone.
Politically, he is shielded somewhat by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which must first recommend commutation before Bush can act. If the board fails to make a recommendation, the governor may issue only a onetime 30-day reprieve. But even if the board votes for commutation, Bush is free to ignore its advice. He has said that he will make his decision based on just two factors: Is the inmate's guilt in question, and did that inmate receive fair access to the courts?
"The only reason this is even an issue is that Texas is known for protecting Mom and apple pie, and here comes Karla Faye Tucker, who's pleasant to look at, who can fit the mold of the pure Texas gal," said Richard Thornton, whose wife was killed in Tucker's attack. "Well, let's not forget that this same Miss Prim and Proper was swinging a pickax 14 years ago. I'm still waiting for the state of Texas to bring that heinous person, that monster, to final justice."
Tucker took a big step closer to that date after her latest appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Her strategy for escaping lethal injection depends more on emotion than law right now, on the hope that people will consider the magnitude of her rehabilitation and grant her a second chance at life, if only so that she can continue undoing her wrongs.
The lurid details of her upbringing are chronicled in a sympathetic book, "Crossed Over," by the novelist Beverly Lowry, who writes that Tucker "makes you want to believe that people change, that confession helps, that there is hope." Raised on a diet of drugs and sex, much of it handed down by her mother, young Karla was shooting up heroin at 10, traveling with the Allman Brothers rock band at 13, trading her body for money for years after that.
She concedes that she was on a self-destructive course that likely would have killed her. Except that she killed first.
Wielded Pickax on Biker, Woman
On a summer night in Houston in 1983, the 23-year-old Tucker and her 37-year-old bartender boyfriend, Daniel Ryan Garrett, decided to break into the apartment of a fellow biker and steal his Harley Davidson parts. Jerry Lynn Dean had once dripped motorcycle oil on Tucker's living room floor. Now she was standing in his bedroom, mauling him with a pickax, boasting afterward that she experienced an orgasm each time the weapon struck flesh.
After Dean fell silent, Tucker noticed that a woman was cowering under the sheets. Deborah Ruth Thornton had argued with her husband the day before, gone to a party and ended up in this stranger's bed. Now it was her turn to get the pickax. Tucker swung, but her arms were tired. Thornton begged to be killed swiftly. Garrett had to help polish her off, leaving the pickax embedded in her chest.
"My thinking," Tucker recalled, "was pretty warped, pretty perverted, pretty evil."
While awaiting trial, Tucker picked up a Bible one day and began to read. Before she knew it, she said, she was down on her knees sobbing, pleading for forgiveness. "At the time, I didn't understand how the Holy Spirit works," she said. "I just remember the whole weight of everything I had done suddenly became a reality. Two precious lives were gone because of me."
She confessed her crimes and then testified against Garrett during his trial, receiving no leniency in return. She expressed remorse, vowed to accept responsibility, even believed that she should pay with her own life. But in 1993, after she married a prison minister, Dana Brown--whose visits to her have since been restricted by a plexiglass shield--her support for the death penalty began to dissolve.
"I can't take back the lives I took, but I can help save lives now," said Tucker, who spends her days counseling other inmates and corresponding with troubled youths. "I can be a part of the solution. If ultimately I die for what I did, and if that is what people in this world believe is the ultimate restitution, that's fine. But in the meantime, I'm going to keep giving and giving and giving."
As a rule, it is easier to condemn criminals from a distance, stripping them of any redeeming qualities. Those who have come to know Tucker tend to see her in human terms, which sometimes triggers a visceral reaction that contradicts their own pro-death-penalty views. That is what happened to Henry Oncken, a former prosecutor who served as her court-appointed lawyer and later became the chief U.S. attorney in Houston.
"The day I was appointed to represent her, I could have pulled the switch myself and not blinked an eye," said Oncken, now a defense lawyer. "I know all of the arguments against her. I've made all of those arguments myself. And I can't counter those arguments, except to tell you how I feel in this particular case with this particular individual. I know her, and I know in my heart her change is genuine."
But to say that there is a groundswell of support from those who have been involved in Tucker's case, as some news reports have suggested, oversimplifies the position of several key officials. The "60 Minutes" piece last month implied that J.C. Mosier, the homicide detective who arrested Tucker, is now pleading for commutation. He is not.
"The change in her life is real; I do believe that," said Mosier, now a chief deputy in the Harris County constable's office. "But a jury made the decision that she should get the death penalty. I agreed with it then and I agree with it now. I don't look forward to her being executed, but it was a just sentence for the crime that was committed."
Sympathy but Not Regrets
A column by William F. Buckley Jr. repeated the mischaracterization of Mosier's views and added another one: that the prosecutor who got Tucker sentenced to death is also seeking clemency. He is not. Joe Magliolo admits that he is not eager to see Tucker die. But he also does not see any grounds for granting her special dispensation.
"Because she's a woman? Because she's a white woman? Because she's a white Christian woman?" asked Magliolo, now an assistant U.S. attorney in Houston. "Nothing against Karla Faye Tucker, but those just aren't reasons."
Magliolo is sometimes confused with Rusty Hardin, the former prosecutor who won a death sentence against Tucker's co-defendant, Garrett, who died in prison of natural causes. Hardin has been one of Tucker's most vocal cheerleaders, arguing that her testimony against Garrett was invaluable--and that her cooperation, more than her faith, is what should distinguish her from other death row inmates. But Hardin also promised Garrett's jury that he would not later campaign to have her sentence reduced.
"Do I hope she is commuted? My answer is yes," said Hardin, now a Houston defense lawyer. "But I refuse to recommend what I personally hope happens. I don't think it is my role as a former prosecutor to ask anybody to go back on a jury verdict."
If the support for Tucker's commutation is somewhat tempered, it still reveals an ambiguity about capital punishment that is normally absent in Texas.
Tucker hopes to exploit that sentiment, which she knows has something to do with her gender, even if she thinks that it should not. But she insists she is seeking mercy less for herself than for others behind bars--men and women alike--who might benefit from the same blessings that have taught her the value of life.
"I may never walk out of here, but most people will," said Tucker, who would be eligible for parole if her death sentence were commuted. "Don't we want them to walk out different?"