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Death in Texas

The argument in favor of clemency for Karla Faye Tucker went like this: Yes, she’s guilty of a horrible crime—she killed two helpless people with a pickax—but she seems genuinely remorseful for her crime; she seems to have undergone a genuine, life-changing religious conversion. Even the warden and corrections officers attest that for fourteen years she’s been a model prisoner. Couldn’t she spend the rest of her life helping other prisoners to change their lives? Is a strict “eye for an eye” always called for?

On television screens across America, people saw Karla Faye Tucker’s beautiful face as she talked about reading the Bible in her prison cell (she admitted to stealing the Bible, not realizing it was free for the asking) and discovering Jesus, who “changed my life.” In following Christ, she said, she had truly been made into a “new creation.”

If only Karla Faye Tucker had not been so sincere, so human.

When Gonzales presented Governor Bush with the Karla Faye Tucker case, a woman hadn’t been executed in Texas in more than a hundred years. What was a “compassionate conservative” governor to do, especially one who claimed to be “born again”? Bush the politician knew that once he included religious conversion as a qualifier for clemency, his legalistic formula—stand behind court verdicts no matter what—would go up in smoke: others facing execution could claim that they too had been “born again” and so deserved clemency. Trapped in this political quagmire, he’d surely be accused of “second-guessing” the courts, and pro-death constituents would be displeased. Better, as Justice Scalia did, to stick to the tried-and-true formula of retribution, which justified the sentence of death without reference to whether or not criminals changed their lives while awaiting execution. Retributive justice was just that—justice. You did the crime, you pay the price. By refusing to show favoritism, Bush would demonstrate the moral “toughness” required of a national leader. He could show that he “followed the law” even though his personal sympathies pulled him in another direction. This meant that no matter how strong the opposition to her execution, Karla Faye Tucker had to die.

During her interviews with Larry King, she had looked directly into the camera and in a soft voice, in an unwavering, guileless tone, told the story of her life, presenting, for the first time, horrific childhood experiences her jury had never heard. Her chance for a loving, nurturing family had been shattered early on by her parents, who fought and finally divorced, leaving young Karla Faye and her older sisters on their own to fend for themselves. Karla Faye first smoked pot with her older sisters when she was eight years old. By the time she was thirteen, she was shooting heroin. A year later, she dropped out of school and followed her mother into prostitution. She knew how to fight with her fists. She moved in and out of turbulent relationships with men. There were always drugs. There was always violence.

On the night of June 11, 1983, Karla Faye and friends began a weekend bash of heroin, cocaine, and pills. Two days later at 3:00 AM, sleepless and high on drugs, Karla Faye Tucker and her boyfriend, Danny Garrett, entered the apartment of Jerry Lynn Dean, whom Karla Faye had met two years earlier when he dated her best friend. There had always been animosity between them. On the night of the murders, Karla Faye’s original aim had been to steal Dean’s motorcycle, but once she was inside the apartment, the plan for robbery escalated into a frenzied act of double murder. Deborah Thornton, who shared Dean’s bed that night, became an unwitting victim. Afterward, still high on drugs, Karla Faye bragged to friends that the killings aroused her sexually.

When arrested, Karla Faye Tucker readily confessed to the murders and implicated Garrett. The jury sentenced her to die. Johnny Holmes, the Harris County district attorney, was proud that he obtained more death penalties than any other DA in Texas. For Holmes, Karla Faye Tucker’s death sentence was just one more political trophy. He could brag that he was an “equal opportunity” district attorney, unafraid to impose tough sentences on women.

I visited Karla Faye Tucker and the other women on Texas’s death row in October 1997, four months before her execution. I had been invited by Pam Perillo, Karla Faye’s friend, who was also on death row.3 Pam told me in a letter how she had watched Karla Faye change. She said that when Karla Faye had first arrived at the Mountain View Unit, “she had the foulest mouth you can possibly imagine” and would “snarl” at anyone who tried to befriend her. “She was far from the Lord,” Pamela said, “definitely not saved.”

In his autobiography, Bush claimed that the pending execution of Karla Faye Tucker “felt like a huge piece of concrete…crushing me.” But in an unguarded moment in 1999 while traveling during the presidential campaign, Bush revealed his true feelings to the journalist Tucker Carlson. Bush mentioned Karla Faye Tucker, who had been executed the previous year, and told Carlson that in the weeks immediately before the execution, Bianca Jagger and other protesters had come to Austin to plead for clemency for her. Carlson asked Bush if he had met with any of the petitioners and was surprised when Bush whipped around, stared at him, and snapped, “No, I didn’t meet with any of them.” Carlson, who until that moment had admired Bush, said that Bush’s curt response made him feel as if he had just asked “the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed.” Bush went on to tell him that he had also refused to meet Larry King when he came to Texas to interview Tucker but had watched the interview on television. King, Bush said, asked Tucker difficult questions, such as “What would you say to Governor Bush?”

What did Tucker answer? Carlson asked.

Please,” Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “please, don’t kill me.”

Carlson was shocked.4 He couldn’t believe Bush’s callousness and reasoned that his cruel mimicry of the woman whose death he had authorized must have been sparked by anger over Karla Faye Tucker’s remarks during the King interviews. When King had asked her what she planned to ask Governor Bush, Karla Faye had said she thought that if Bush approved her execution, he would be succumbing to election-year pressure from pro–death penalty voters.

Election-year pressure?

Bush was receiving thousands of messages urging clemency for Tucker, including one from one of his daughters. “Born-again” evangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, normally ardent advocates of execution, urged him to commute Tucker’s sentence. When Pope John Paul II urged Bush to grant mercy to Tucker, Bush responded disingenuously in a letter to the Pope, saying, “Ms. Tucker’s sentence can only be commuted by the Governor if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends a commutation of sentence.” On several occasions, Bush stated publicly that in deciding Karla Faye Tucker’s fate, he was seeking “guidance through prayer,” adding that “judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority.”

But there was no way Bush could avoid the godlike power thrust on him as governor. When Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that life-or-death judgments should be “left to the Almighty,” he meant that such supposed judgments, even if they are believed to be divine, cannot properly be discerned and administered by flawed human agents. This recognition led him to oppose government executions. But while Bush claimed to leave the judgment of Karla Faye Tucker to God, in reality he exercised his own political judgment and authorized her death.

Karla Faye’s death hit me hard. During my visit with her, she and Pam Perillo sat with me in a small chapel and we talked together for an hour. Karla Faye said that she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she dreaded the long car trip with the guards to Huntsville. Once before, when they had accompanied her to a court hearing, they had taunted her and delayed when she asked them to stop so she could “go to the bathroom.” She said she had “delicate intestines” and a delay in getting to a toilet could prove “disastrous.” “During those rides,” she explained, “the guards have you in their power. Some are kind, but others are mean and not fond of me because I’ve gotten so much publicity.”

It reminded me of an incident recorded in the account of the martyrdom of Saint Ignatius of Rome, in which the saintly bishop, upon arriving at the Colosseum, where hungry lions awaited, bumped his shin as he stepped out of the carriage. The man was about to be torn apart limb from limb and the hagiographer felt the need to record that he bumped his shin? Yet there it is, the incident forever recorded, one small glimmer of the saint’s vulnerable humanity.

Here was Karla Faye, a woman who had transformed her life and would have been a source of healing love to guards and prisoners for as long as she lived, yet the iron protocol of retributive justice demanded that she be put to death. It was as if Bush and Albert Gonzales and the pardons board had freeze-framed Karla Faye Tucker in the worst act of her life, then freeze-framed themselves into killing her. That’s the way a machine works, relentless and preordained, with no room for the personal transcendence that conscience gives. It was all so mechanical, so unthinking, so political. That’s why on the night of Karla Faye’s killing, my anger at George W. Bush turned to outrage when Larry King aired Bush’s press statement and I heard the way Bush invoked God to bless his denial of clemency. I already knew the substance of Bush’s position toward Karla Faye, but I had never heard the last sentence of his press statement: “May God bless Karla Faye Tucker and may God bless her victims and their families.”

Immediately after the statement, King turned to me for a response. When I heard Bush say, “God bless Karla Faye Tucker,” I had to struggle to keep a vow I made to reverence every person, even those with whom I disagree most vehemently. Inside my soul I raged at Bush’s hypocrisy, but the broadcast was live and global. With not much time to rein myself in, I took a quick breath, said a fierce prayer, looked into the camera, and said, “It’s interesting to see that Governor Bush is now invoking God, asking God to bless Karla Faye Tucker, when he certainly didn’t use the power in his own hands to bless her. He just had her killed.”

As governor, Bush certainly did not stand apart in his routine refusal to deny clemency to death row petitioners, but what does set him apart is the sheer number of executions over which he has presided. Callous indifference to human suffering may also set Bush apart. He may be the only government official to mock a condemned person’s plea for mercy, then lie about it afterward, claiming humane feelings he never felt. On the contrary, it seems that Bush is comfortable with using violent solutions to solve troublesome social and political realities.

The aphorism “A hammer, when presented with a nail, knows to do only one thing” applies, par excellence, to George W. Bush. As governor of Texas, Bush tackled the social problem of street crime by presiding over the busiest execution chamber in the country. At the time of the thirteen death row exonerations in Illinois, Bush stated publicly that although states such as Illinois might have problems with a faulty death penalty system, he was certain that in Texas no innocent person had ever been sent to death row, much less executed. That remains to be seen. What is clear is that he had, as governor, no quality of mercy.

  1. 3

    She has since been resentenced to life imprisonment.

  2. 4

    Tucker Carlson, “Devil May Care,” Talk, September 1999.

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