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Karla Faye Tucker has spent 14 of her 38 years on death row. When she was 23, she and her boyfriend, Daniel Garrett, went on a 3-day drug and alcohol binge. It was not her first. Near its end, they decided to steal a motorcycle from the apartment of one of her former boyfriends, Jerry Lynn Dean. After breaking in, they were surprised to find him at home, asleep in bed. Panicking, Garrett grabbed a hammer he happened to see and began bashing Dean’s head. Karla, in an effort to stop the "gurgling sound" Dean was making, grabbed a pickax she found in the room and began swinging away at Dean.
Once Dean was dead, Tucker noticed someone hiding under a blanket in the corner of the room. Pulling it back, she found Deborah Thornton, Dean’s current girlfriend. Deciding not to leave a witness, Karla turned the pickax on her and began swinging it again. All together, she swung that 20 pound ax at least 20 times that evening. When she was finished, she left it embedded in Deborah Thornton’s chest. It was still there when the police found her.
None of this is contested. Tucker confessed to it all during her trial, and before that boasted of it to friends. Naturally, she and Garrett were convicted and sentenced to death. Garrett died of liver disease after nine years on death row. Karla found God and, by all the accounts of those who know her, was transformed.
She has spent her time in prison ministering to others on death row, seeking to help them find peace and redemption. Two years ago, she married the prison chaplain, Dana Brown. However, as death row prisoners are allowed no physical contact with others, she has yet to be allowed to even touch hands with her husband.
Many people throughout the world have joined in asking that Karla’s life be spared. Among them are Deborah Thornton’s brother, Jerry Lynn Dean’s sister, the homicide detective who put her on death row, several former prosecutors, Pope John Paul II and Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and usually a staunch defender of the death penalty.
As a member of your state’s board of pardons and paroles, Karla has turned to you to ask for clemency. If a majority of your board agrees, and the governor concurs, her sentence can be commuted to life in prison. She says that she will be content to live out her days behind bars, "doing God’s work and being an example for young people".
Richard Thornton (Deborah’s husband), victims’ rights groups and the prosecutor in Karla’s case don’t believe she should live. They argue that her conversion was faked, and urge people to look at the crime scene photos and remember what she did. They point out that there is no life without parole in your state, and that consequently Karla could be free in 5 years.
It is now time for your board to discuss Karla’s case. Review the facts and the arguments, then vote on the question before you: Should you recommend that the governor commute Karla’s sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole?
Here are links to some of the primary sources relating to this situation.
Texas v. Karla Faye Tucker: A Question of Mercy (Court TV Online, 1998)
New Life on Death Row: The Karla Faye Tucker Story (Christian Broadcasting Network)
Report on the execution of Karla Faye Tucker (agitator.com, 1998)
Letter from Karla Faye Tucker asking for clemency (agitator.com 1998)
The Hanging Governor (a report on the clemency process in Texas, Salon, May 11, 2000)
Death Row statistics from the Texas Department of Corrections
If you are interested in exploring the topic of the death penalty in more detail, have a look at:
The Death Penalty Information Center
Amnesty International USA's effort to abolish the death penalty
Court TV looks at the death penalty in the U.S.
the American Civil Liberties Union looks at the death penalty
The Washington Post's most recent death penalty reports
NPR producer David Isay has created two documentaries on the death penalty in the U.S.
Witness to an Execution
The stories of men and women involved in the execution of death row inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.
The Execution Tapes
The historic broadcast of executions tape-recorded by the Georgia Department of Corrections.
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original web posting: Wednesday, May 31, 2000
last modified: Saturday, March 05, 2005