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U.S.: Controversy Continues Over Execution Of Woman Prisoner

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 3 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A convicted murderer scheduled for execution today in the southwestern U.S. state of Texas has reignited a debate over the death penalty in America -- primarily because she is a young woman and a professed born-again Christian.

Karla Faye Tucker, aged 38, faces execution by injection today for her participation in the brutal murder of two people in 1983. She would be the first woman executed in Texas in more than 130 years -- and only the second woman executed in the United States since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976.

Tucker and her boyfriend, Daniel Garrett, were convicted of murdering two people with a pickax during a drug-induced crime spree. Garrett, who was also sentenced to death, died in prison of liver disease in 1993.

Tucker, a former teen-age prostitute and drug user, says she changed in prison and has found sobriety and God. She told Texas parole authorities that she wants to live so that she can urge other people to find God and warn them from making the same mistakes she did.

Supporting her plea for clemency are her husband, a prison minister she married in 1995, most of the prison guards, the brother of one of her victims, the sister of the other, and television evangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson.

Her support also comes from outside the United States. The Vatican and the European Parliament issued statements appealing for clemency in her case. The United Nations sent a letter on her behalf to Texas Governor George Bush -- the son of former U.S. President George Bush -- and to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

However, strongly opposed to sparing her life are the husband of one of the victims and a wide array of U.S. victim's rights organizations.

Across the nation, Americans are sharply divided on the issue.

There are currently 38 states in the United States that have the death penalty. According to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 49 women and 3,316 men are currently on death row.

In the U.S. last year, 74 prisoners (all men) were executed -- the most prisoners put to death in one year since the resumption of capital punishment. Half of those executions -- 37 -- took place in one state, Texas.

The DPIC says the number of people on death row has been growing at an average of 100 to 150 people per year. If executions proceed as scheduled, says the center, more death row inmates will die of natural causes than will be executed.

Recent polls show that overall, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty. And in order to speed up executions, the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has drastically curtailed the rights of death row inmates to appeals.

But despite the curtailments, death row inmates still have a lengthy amount of time for appeal and many opportunities to have their sentences overturned. The average length of an appeal of a death row inmate in America is now nearly nine years.

Some experts say the reluctance to enforce the death penalty indicates a sense of ambivalence of American's toward the issue.

But the Tucker case has thrown a number of thorny issues into the debate -- primarily because she is a woman and claims to have been completely rehabilitated by religion.

Publicly, Tucker, her lawyers, the prosecutors, the governor of Texas and just about everyone legally involved in the case say her sex should not be a consideration in the decision over clemency. Yet the very fact that she is scheduled to be the first woman to be executed in Texas in more than a century, is bringing national and international attention her way.

Overall, women represent only 1.5 percent of the total death row population, with five women recently having their death sentences overturned, according to DPIC.

But in light of the Tucker case, psychologists have begun new discussions of America's attitudes toward killing women, and sociologists are launching new studies to determine why juries seem to spare women from the death penalty more often than men. In addition to gender and the death penalty, another serious issue being raised by the Tucker case is the question of rehabilitation and mercy.

Clemency supporters say that mercy should consider that rehabilitation is possible and people may be truly repentant for their crimes.

Tucker herself says she is a completely different person than the crazed woman who put a pickax through the back of an unarmed man.

In her plea to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, she wrote: "Even though I did murder ... that night and not think anything of it back then, it is now the one thing I regret most in my life."

David Botsford, one of Tucker's lawyers, told reporters: "She may be the same physical person she was when the case was tried, but she is clearly not the same person. She is totally rehabilitated."

But not everyone believes Tucker should be spared on the basis of her rehabilitation or conversion to religion.

Dianne Clements of the Texas-based victim's rights organization Justice for All told the newspaper the Baltimore Sun that Tucker's rehabilitation as a result of her conversion to Christianity should be "immaterial."

Says Clements: "If Tucker is truly a Christian, then she has had the benefit of 14 years of mercy from the state of Texas. She has put herself in a position where she has converted, she will go to heaven and she will be with her Lord. Karla Faye Tucker did not let her victims have the same benefit."

Tucker's appeal has been heard by Texas's highest court and rejected, and another appeal, her last, is currently pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied her request for clemency and said that the execution will proceed as scheduled for later today.

The Board's decision means that Governor Bush cannot grant clemency and can only issue a 30-day reprieve, which the board recommended against doing.

Board chairman, Victor Rodriguez, told reporters Monday: "I think we're finished with this case."

Tucker says despite her appeals, she realizes that she may ultimately have to pay for her crime with her life.

In her letter to the Board, she wrote: "Justice and law demand my life for the two innocent lives I brutally murdered that night. If my execution is the only thing, the final act that can fulfill the demand for restitution and justice, then I accept that."