1998: Karla Faye Tucker, for an axe murder and a Republican presidency

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.

The calculus pointed towards proceeding with the execution under cover of pious flimflammery. Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame later recalled it:

[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.

Part 1:Part 2: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:

A roundup of Karla Faye Tucker coverage is here. A detailed biography is here. A pro-Karla Faye site memorializes her here.

* 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.

On this day..

48 thoughts on “1998: Karla Faye Tucker, for an axe murder and a Republican presidency

  1. Let’s see. A condemned inmate who had also turned to Jesus and worked in the prison ministry was executed about a month before Karla. But he was a man. I’m not disputing Karla’s transformation. I’m just disgusted at the normaly death penalty supporting conservative Christian pastors clamoring for her clemency while ignoring others. I think it was because she was a woman and charismatic. I had no such reservations about the Pope who had always been anti death penalty. What this ultimately said is that if you’re the correct sex and the correct religion somehow you should be spared. Bush made the right call.

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  3. God is also just, and He will mete out appropriate punishment–in this world or the next. We aren’t to judge others’ souls; we can certainly judge behavior. It’s called “discernment.”

  4. God is a forgiving God…WE are not the ones whom shall pass judgement. We have all fallen short. Some more than others. I pray for peace, love and forgiveness to us all. George Bush is a comedian evidently. He who has made many suffer shall then so reap the same.

  5. I truly believe, god works in all ways, we r to follow the laws on earth, the bible says,listen to the kings on earth,( that’s how its put) keep faith in Jesus, and fall before god to worship,lots of people are raised in unfortunate situations, but we know rite from wrong, forgiveness is one of our keys,and only god can judge us,trust n believe if Karla wasn’t suppose too die at that time, she wouldn’t have, he is almighty! Hopefully peace has found all involved. God bless all that doubt.

  6. I believe there was an awakening for Karla Faye Tucker. She was filled with the Holy Spirit. She accepted Christ as her personal savior and started to serve God. I don’t think she should have been executed, It was a lonely sad day when that happen but I believe that she is in Heaven now.

  7. if the American Welfare and Child ProtectionService did their work correctly, people like Carla Faye Tucker would not be left with irresponsable parents how she was, this upbringing led to her horrible crime. Her mother was reponsable along with welfare services for this crime.

  8. I definitely agree with the comment about forgiveness being Gods ultimate purpose in humanity as sinners because we all have sin one way or another and I too feel in all karla was not a monster and sparing her life would have served a more positively purpose while still in prison and if indeed former Governor Bush had the power to have spared her life may God have mercy on his soul too as he said in final statement it a really tough one here and to say ms Thorton was doing something inmoral before God still didnt deserve murder and God has the ultimate judgement

  9. Bush is such a whimp of a boy-man. He struts and abuses power that is not even his. i hope he dies someday in agony for the deeds he did against humanity someday

  10. Bush is a psychopath and a traitor, he should be on trial and a execution in his future.

    The entire bush family is nothing but criminals and traitors.


    • omg Carla Faye Tucker was a drug fill maniac when she murdered those people but then Saul of Tarsus was much worse than Carla Faye and just like Saul, Carla Faye was forgiven and no one had to put her on the table to be executed, she jumped up on it and said, I’m about to be face to face with my Lord and Savior Jesus our Messiah! That act of execution to her was her graduation to heaven!

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  14. I prayed for Karla as well and also prayed for George W. Bush. Both of them were in a horrible situation. Everyone knows you don’t kill in Texas because you surely die in Texas. I was hoping George W. could have done something but he couldn’t, it was the law. Not only that I’m speculative about the two victims: the guy was an antagonist that bullied others around with his dumb Harley and Thornton is a woman married to someone else sleeping with the antagonist. I’d say she was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing with the wrong guy, all the meanwhile ignoring her husband and children. You can only tick off so many people before someone goes after you. I want to meet Karla someday in heaven because I really appreciate her honesty and taking responsibility for the situation although she was drugged and really should have blamed her mother for the whole thing since her mom was pimping her out at an early age.

  15. I am only going crazy everyday when I think of the time she was excuted, I only wish she was alive, she would have saved alot of lost souls compared to what George Bush Jr. did in Iraq, he murdered alot of innocent people.

  16. lol if people wanna use her “conversion” as a reason to let her live thats just a joke…..anyone here ever read Gen 9:6 ?

    so now we have religion covered lets cover society……..why should a man be put to death for horrible murders but not a woman? to say otherwise is sexist……you want equality or not?

    so what argument is left?

    sanctity of life? lol well abortion kinda kills your argument on that……and even if it didnt where was her victims sanctity of life? is the victim murder not deserving of justice?…..if anything her life isnt enough, she wasnt innocent

    yeah, there is no real argument for this piece of trash to have been allowed to live.

  17. I have not read this book and probably never will. Debbie and her brother lived next door to my aunt and uncle in my hometown. My sister was best friends with Debbie and graduated with her, they were 12 years older than me. I have many memories of seeing Debbie when I would go over to my aunt’s house, which was often.

    The night of Karla’s execution, I spent the evening on the phone with my sister who was sobbing, praying that Karla’s execution would NOT be put off. Karla had committed a horrible, horrible crime that she needed to pay for according to our laws. What was her victims crimes?? What did they do to deserve what happened to them?? How do you think it felt to be killed in such a manner, a pain I can’t imagine.

    I am glad that Karla found God and is in his arms now but she still did what she did.

  18. R Miller–

    You’re having some issues and I will attempt to help you!

    First, what is with the personal attacks? You folks on the left resort to personal attacks all the time. I have had years of experience with folks like you, and I’m telling you, when you resort to personal attacks, it weakens your argument.

    Now, let’s put (as you out it) the ‘Jesus crap’ aside for a moment. I will not try to convince you of the MORAL reasons why we need a death penalty. Instead, I will give you MY OPINION as to why society NEEDS a death penalty:

    Unlike you, I do not see worth and value in all people. Certain crimes that are committed deserve the death penalty. When people cross the line and murder (not kill, ’cause one can mistakenly kill with a car, etc) INNOCENT people, they need to die. You may not agree with me, but I will not attack you for your beliefs. To believe as you obviously do, that no matter what a person does, they shouldn’t be put to death, has got to be one of the strangest things in the world. Some people forfeit their right to live when they commit heinous crimes, and they should not be pampered for years in a prison where they can receive medical care, watch TV, and “enjoy” life, when their victims are six feet under.

    You’re argument is without foundation.

  19. @kevin sullivan. if you are a “christian”, you are a hypocrite. your belief of an “eye for an eye” is not only archaic, but contrary to the “new covenant”. don”t get me wrong, i flat out hate jesus chrap, and i likewise hate hypocrites. who gave you or anyone the right of power to decide who should die. the basic stupidity of those who advocate the death penalty is the idea that you should be able to murder someone because you condemn them of murder. seems to me that those who have the power to execute should then be executed for murder. to argue that the cloak of government through the judicial system differentiates execution as “not murder” is simply asinine.

  20. If you ever give an interview, always bring a recording device. When the reporter asks you why, give ’em a big smile and say, “Oh, that? This way we both have a record of what was said.”

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  22. @Don–It’s not about whether her conversion was sincere (it probably was sincere), or whether she’d have lived “a law abiding God fearing life”, it’s about paying an earthly debt (don’t say Jesus paid it, ’cause he didn’t; people still have to answer for their crimes). Had her life been spared it would have been a terrible judicial mistake, and would have opened the proverbial can of worms for others seeking to avoid the death penalty. No, Ms. Tucker should have been executed for the egregious murder she committed. That she became a Christian means nothing when paying the penalty for killing humans. That was a debt that could only be paid with her life.

    Believe me, If Karla Fay Tucker was sincere in her beliefs, God met her the moment her spirit left her body.

  23. While i firmly believe in the death penalty i wish Karla faye tucker had been spared.Usually the cold bloode4d killers who get sentenced to death wouldn’t change if spared.This young lady made her piece with God,and i believe she would have lived a law biding God fearing life if she’d been spared.I’ve read lots of last words by soon to be executed killers ususally its “You are killing an innocent man her tonight or some such b.s.Karla took responsibility for her crimes and praised God right to the end

  24. We should all just remember the God that Karla served and remember who he is. And in Gods eyes sin is sin. So with that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We cannot get into heaven on good deeds but by the grace of God. Lets not forget that. We are not a religion but are on a journey. This is not our home, we are merely passing through. I don’t care how a person lives, no one deserves to die needlessly and Forgiveness is the Ultimate act we all need to learn and apply in our lives. Mine included. It’s not easy picking up our cross and bearing it. Remember what Karla said. In her life or in her death it is soley about God. For those carrying bitterness I will keep you in my prayers. As for all of you who are sincere in their walk with Christ pray that I may continue to run the race…heavenbound. May Karlas testimony continue to touch lives in Jesus’ name.

  25. I think that Karla was a brave and amazing person or was. Everyone has a pass but when I read this book about her life it made me think of my life and how lucky I am to have the support I need. Mrs. Tucker opened my eyes and showed me through her words that there was a God. I quit believeing in God when I was 16. When I woke up next to my mother dead next to me. Mrs. Tucker was going through a lot but still she felt bad for what she had done. I know people who have had the honor of meeting her face to face. They told me that she has really changed. I look at Mrs. Tucker’s photos and see a role model for me and my kids. I want everyone to understand that God is always there for us no matter what. It may not seem that way sometimes but he is. Mrs. Tucker inspired me to believe in God the Almighty and stay on the right path. Now all my kids don’t do drugs. They are either raising there own kids, or going to school and college. I have 7 Kids and all my kids love this book. They think it is very inspiring and a good reason why they shouldn’t do drugs. THANK YOU KARLA FAYA TUCKER AND OF COURSE MR. TUCKER.

  26. Rachel–
    I hate to burst your bubble, but all sins ARE NOT THE SAME!

    Telling a lie is not the same as murder. A lie is noted by God and soon forgotten by the person telling it. The results of murder (also a sin) go on for decades: You steal the rest of the person’s days when you kill them, you create grief in the loved ones left behind, and you alter the course of people’s lives through murder forever. All sins are not the same, though they carry with it the theological title “sin”.

    Also, GOD DOES NOT LET BAD THINGS HAPPEN FOR A REASON! God has nothing to do with the horrible things that happen in this world. God is not a psychopath. He takes no pleasure, nor does he have a part in the murder and rape of children, He does not start wars, He does not commit evil; yet there is plenty of evil in the world.

    The devil commits evil and God gets the blame. Indeed, one day the devil said to his minions (my opinion) “Look, we can’t get people to not believe in God, so let us change who God is! let us do our work, and convince people that it is God doing it!”

    So many people believe these lies…

  27. I like Dwaynes comment (#6)
    For the rest of the people, you either seem to be siding with Karla saying she didn’t deserve to die. Grant it, GOD IS MERCIFUL, but he is also JUST. He allows things to happen for certain reasons, most of which we will never know. Ultimately…we know that ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR THE GOOD OF THOSE WHO LOVE GOD AND ARE CALLED ACCORDING TO HIS PURPOSE. Romans 8:28 so, if Karla truly accepted God as her Lord & savior, there’s nothing to worry about. As for the rest of the comments who show such cold hearts toward Karla: It’s sad to see. FORGIVENESS IS KEY. No sin is greater than another. Whether you’ve talked bad about a friend behind their back or literally stabbed someone in the back. Jesus Christ Died On The Cross Of Calvary & RESURRECTED on the 3rd day so that we would be FORGIVEN ! It’s not about where you’ve been or what you’ve done…it’s about where you’re going & what you’re doing to get there.

  28. She’s dead and she is NOT missed.

    Justice was done, even if it took forever and a doggone day.

    She deserved to be killed and she was killed.

    Too bad for smelly hippies that don’t like it.

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  31. Well, The Bible says…. I f you live by the sword you will die by the sword. Altimately THOU SHALL NOT KILL… is one of the 10 commandments. The states have broken that commandment and will have to answer to them when Christ comes to take his children home! Jesus also says If you cannot forgive those who done you wrong neither will I forgive you. Reguardless of what you did wrong IT DOES NOT GIVE ANYONE THE RIGHT TO COMMIT MURDER…. NOT EVEN JUSTIFIED HOMICIDE! REVENGE IS MINE SAITH THE LORD!!!! Think about it how would you like to be in the position of being eexecuted! Would you think its right? Would you want mercy? I PRAY those who are responsible for executions are brought to justice by GOD’s standards!

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  33. What would you expect out of a person who is taught to sell her self off and inflict herself with a variety of drugs. Taught that life is meaningless and cold-hearted. Her mother showed her this way. Yes it was wrong for her to kill those people but afte hearing her interviews, you don’t see the same Karla who grew up thinking so little about herself. I am glad she was regretful for her actions and to forgive the ones who are angry with her; this way she can live at peace with herself.

  34. this woman murdered someone with an axe and bragged that she had an orgasm while doing it. i am only sorry that they could only kill her once. i hope it hurt like hell.

  35. everyone finds god, when in foxholes or on death row, no great surprise there.

    that said, if bush had proven half as competent at actually governing, as he did at having other’s do his killing for him, it might almost have been a fair trade-off (sorry karla fay). unfortunately for both ms. tucker, and the entire country (if not the world), it wasn’t.

  36. I just started reading about Karla this year why I don’t no maybe GOD sent me their. But I do know what I have read has touched my heart. Yes she did a bad thing but she found GOD and helped others find HIM to. I would say my thoughts are with 9
    D. Ward Says:
    Read that number 9 it sumes my feelings very good.

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  38. IT has been years now since Karla was executed, I beleive in the death penalty, but Karla Faye should not have been executed. I also would like to cooment on that fat slob husband of Debra Thornton. If they had such a great marriage, why was she spending the night with another man. I feel he just wanted to get some t.v. time and make some money off of a movie or biook deal. I feel sorry for bthe daughter of Debra Thornton, but Ms. Thorntons husband is a joke,.
    I hope Karla is resting in peace, and she knew she was going to a much better place, but she could have done so much good if she had been given clemency. There atre many people who should have been executed years ago, like the night stalker whio is a satanist, and he has no remorse. After 20 years he is still sitting on death row. It seems those who least cdeserve execution afre the last to get it.
    Karla did not deserve to die, but I know she is with God. I hope to meet her some day. As for Thornton, I hope he has a long miserable lonely life because he was only out to promote himself. I firmly beleive that. The man Debra Thornton wanted to be with died with her. May God Bless Them Both. What chace did Karla have the way she was raised. Her own mother had her using heroin before she was a teenager and marijuana at aghe 10. She also put her daughter on the street to sell her body to get her mom monet for drugs. I think she did better than most girls who was treated like that would do. She should have been going tio schi=oll and going to Six Flags or Disney World, not selling her body for the women who gave birth to her. I never heard any words of hate from Karla towards the women who gave birth to her,.She was not a mother to her.

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  41. Why has this become a Bush bashing article. Karla Faye was convicted and sentence to death by a jury of her peers. Bush did not convict her. Many people change in prison some for the better some for the worse, but her sentence was already handed out. Also you guys with the war crap need to learn how government works. Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution says the Congress shall have power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;” Congress passed on this power to the President and they voted and approved the war. Its not Bush’s war, its our derelict governments war. They were all complicit in it! Obama is no different, he wants to remove troops from Iraq because thats the populists political view but he won’t bring them home, they will instead just head over to Afghanistan. The real enemy is our government officials and our central banking system that makes billions of dollars in profit from any war in the world. Bush and Cheney made profits of course but look at the democrats financial statements and you will see they made profits also. Its like pro wrestling, they are enemies in the ring in the public square but they are all buddies behind the scenes!

  42. “…He might be looking at a needle for the war crimes & everything else he have done in the last 8 years. (Please President Obama, don’t kill me!)”

    Very well said.

    On Tucker -I’m glad she found the Lord, but her salvation was for her own good. If they pardoned her, there honestly would be alot of other “Come to Jesus” murderers popping up all over the country. She was an example -as tacky as that sounds – and they couldn’t give one newly saved Believer a pardon, and not the others.

    As for Bush, he has alot to answer for when he goes before the Throne. It will most likely be “Please God, don’t send me to Hell. Osama’s down there, and he don’t like me since my war on Terra!”

  43. “Bush need to worry about himself after Jan. 20 (that is if he dosen’t pardon himself). He might be looking at a needle for the war criimes & everything else he have done in the last 8 years. (Please President Obama, don’t kill me!)”


  44. Bush need to worry about himself after Jan. 20 (that is if he dosen’t pardon himself). He might be looking at a needle for the war criimes & everything else he have done in the last 8 years. (Please President Obama, don’t kill me!)

  45. The victim Debora’s Brother is the greatest testimony that can exist. Karla’s story continues because of the many areas that her life represents ie death penalty. Why is it that our society kills those who would bring Love and the Light of God in to manifestation? I also feel the anguish of the victims and believe the goodness of their lives should be brought more into the “media eye”. However, I am glad that the message of Hope and Inspiration that Karla’s life is will continue to reach many. God DOES change people. God’s message will never be stopped even when Society chooses to act in a murderous way. I am not totally against the Death Penalty but I am against murdering someone who is not a menace to our society in any way and who only asks to continue her ministry in the prison she is in. God bless us All, I pray this Christmas season and always. That, I believe would be the message of Deborah’s Brother, Deborah and Karla.

  46. Don’t get me wrong, I think what Karla did was awful. I do however feel that the Karla that did the crime was not the same Karla who died. I’ve read “Crossed Over” and she really did seem to change. Her mother had her hooked on drugs by the time she was eight and she had a terrible life. I have a US friend who adamantly refuses to accept that Bush mimicked Karla, and I thought maybe I’d dreamed it. It’s reassuring to find that I didn’t. Karla Faye Tucker who killed was not the same woman they put to death. I spent all day praying that she wouldn’t die, but it wasn’t to be. I wish she had been spared.

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