February 3rd, 2008 Headsman
Ten years ago today, born-again murderess Karla Faye Tucker died by lethal injection in Texas — her reprieve refused by politically ambitious Governor George W. Bush.
At the bottom, Tucker‘s case was a simple one: on a drug-fueled jag at age 23, she’d committed two grisly axe murders in the course of a robbery.* By the time her appeals ran out and her case reached the executive clemency stage, she’d become an outspoken born-again Christian and was asking for mercy.
She was far from the first prisoner to have undergone that conversion.
But she was, to begin with, to be the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War, which by itself gave her case a special valence. That she was white and relatively photogenic surely did not hurt her cause. By hook or by crook, if not by any objectively consistent standard, her situation caught the public eye –attracting support from some ordinarily pro-death penalty evangelicals as well as more predictable allies. She appeared live on Larry King‘s talk show three weeks before her execution. For a few weeks, Tucker became the emblematic dilemma of reform and redemption pitting the death penalty’s various partial rationales against one another: between retribution for her crime and the present interest of her society, which has precedence? And who decides?
The decider today** was a first-term governor of Texas due to face re-election nine months hence and already looking ahead to the 2000 presidential election.
The case presented George W. Bush with a delicate political situation. Bush was carving out a public persona as a tough-talking lawman — at this point in time, his willingness to execute might have been the thing he was best-known for nationally. He would need evangelical support to run for president, but parsing out life and death on that basis would raise its own difficulties.
[O]n 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 … “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 … [I] 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.”
Bush’s political instincts proved grimly accurate this day, but Karla Faye Tucker very nearly returned to derail his presidential bid a year later.
In an interview the following year with a conservative journalist, Bush mocked Tucker’s plea for mercy with shocking cruelty, subsequently related in Talk magazine:
In the week before [Karla Faye Tucker's] execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. “Did you meet with any of them?” I ask.
Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them,” he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’ ”
“What was her answer?” I wonder.
“Please,” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “don’t kill me.”
The journalistic principle demands acknowledging the president-to-be’s denial of the remark, but the denial is a self-evident lie. That story briefly threatened to punch a hole in Bush’s presidential campaign positioning as a “compassionate conservative,” and especially of having somberly reviewed the myriad death warrants he signed. But the matter vanished harmlessly.
At the end, for the relentless churn of the news cycle, Karla Faye Tucker was a passing shadow. What was left — this day, and a decade after — was an intensely personal story, rich with those timeless and unfathomable mysteries of the human experience cast by the executioner into such sharp relief.
This documentary, sympathetic to Tucker but not only to her, was made around the time of the execution but stands up well for its presentation of the widely divergent, equally heartfelt perspectives of several drawn into the passion — Tucker herself, a victim’s brother who forgave her, and a victim’s spouse who hated her until the end.
The literature left behind by this day’s case likewise tends — when it is not about the President — to the devotional qualities of Karla Faye’s personal path.
So too the cinematic treatment Forevermore:
* Along with her boyfriend, who was also sentenced to death but died in prison. Even before she was an “attractive” woman seeking clemency, the case — like that of many death row women — had a sexualized context as well: she boasted of reaching orgasm as she struck the victims, and recordings of those boasts were played at her trial.
** Legally, the Governor of Texas had — and still has — limited powers of clemency: if the parole board did not recommend mercy, Bush could do nothing more than offer a 30-day stay. That statutory limitation was more apparent than real, however: board members are political appointees and their deliberations are secret; they essentially answer to the governor. On the one occasion Bush actually did want to grant clemency, he made his desire known and the board obliged with the needed recommendation.
Also on this date
- 1814: Mariano Matamoros, Mexican revolutionary
- 1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr
- 1537: "Silken Thomas" FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare
- 1945: Not Fabian von Schlabrendorff, saved by a bomb
- 1967: Ronald Ryan, the last hanged in Australia
- 1915: Veljko Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic and Misko Jovanovic, Archduke Ferdinand's assassins