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KARLA FAYE TUCKER, OLD AND NEW

ON THIS DAY, 3 February 1998, at 6:45 PM, authorities pronounced Karla Faye Tucker dead. After being administered a lethal injection, she had coughed, groaned, and stopped breathing. Among her last words were “I am going to be face to face with Jesus now . . . I will see you all when you get there.”


Tucker was the first woman executed in Texas in one hundred and thirty years. Schooled by her mother at a young age in prostitution and drug use, she had a far from ideal upbringing and had prided herself on her toughness. In 1983, Tucker and her boyfriend Danny Garrett murdered Jerry Dean and Deborah Ruth Thornton while casing Dean’s house to steal a motorcycle and its parts. Tucker and Garrett were on drugs. Although Tucker insisted the murder was not premeditated, it was particularly violent. Afterward, she boasted of her role in the crime and even exaggerated her part, wanting to be accepted as no less tough than the men she hung around with. Her boasts were recorded by a wired informant and her arrest followed immediately.


While in jail, she attended a Christian puppet show. Impressed by the quality of peace in the performers, she stole a Bible (not realizing she could have one for free), and began to read. “I didn’t know what I was reading and before I knew it, I was just—I was in the middle of my floor on my knees and I was just asking God to forgive me,” she later told TV host Larry King. “God reached down inside of me and just literally uprooted all of that stuff and took it out, and poured himself in.”


Convicted and sentenced to die, she blossomed in faith and led a demonstrably Christian life for fourteen years on death row. She not only testified to fellow death row inmates but also to the world at large through interviews. She did all the good she could in her limited sphere of action. Her case became an international cause, both because of her conversion and her gender. She married a prison minister. Two relatives of her victims became friends with her. One, Ronald Carlson, asked that her death penalty be commuted to a lesser sentence.


Tucker herself said no difference should be made between men and women who committed similar crimes. However, she argued that after her conversion she was not the same person she had been when she committed the murder. Her case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court but the justices declined to hear it. Governor George Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also rejected appeals for clemency, sealing her fate.


Despite her death at thirty-eight years of age, Tucker’s Christian witness has lived on in articles, books, and even a movie. She represents proof that God can forgive the ugliest past, renew the most hardened person, and give any life meaning.

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