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EDITORIAL The Humanity of Karla Faye Tucker BY DAVID R. DOW By the time you read this barring a last-minute and unexpected stay of execution, Karla Faye Tucker will be dead For the first time since the Civil ‘War; the state of Texas has executed a woman. In terms of the crime she committed Tucker was not an atypical death row inmate If anything the murder she carried out was unusually violent: she hacked a man to death with a pickax The only thing extraordinary about the Tucker case is the attention it drew Two weeks before the death sentence was carried ou4 for example Pat Robertson appeared on “Larry King Live” and pleaded for Tucke6i life The death penalty is not about vengeance he said and Karla Faye Tucker had reformed p at Robertson was not alone. Homicide detectives and prosecutors and even Newt Gingrich all took up Tucker’s cause. Why would so many people who ordinarily begin and end all discussions of capital punishment with some reference to the Bible’s eye-for-aneye language suddenly become, at least for a day, death penalty opponents? Why were so many avowed death penalty supporters drawn to Tucker’s case? The obvious explanations are true enough, yet misleading. Certainly it was important that Tucker was a woman, and an attractive one at that, for we commonly use language to convey that those whom we will execute are not humans but monsters, and Tucker’s countenance would not permit us to indulge that fiction. Too, much as we are loathe to admit it, it matters that Tucker was white. Finally, in her decade spent on death row, she found Jesus. No one has reason to doubt the sincerity of Tucker’s conversion. Death row is a religious place. In my nine years of working on death penalty appeals, I have known no fewer than twenty men who found religion while in prison. Of course, more than half of them were black; no more than two or three could fairly be described as goodlooking; and most of the blacks found Islam, not Christianity. Yet no figure from the religious right, no erstwhile supporter of capital punishment, ever asked the Governor to spare the life of any of my clients. Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that those who opposed the execution of Karla Faye Tucker are racist or sexist or anti-Muslim. Tucker’s supporters made an exception for her because they saw her as a human being. The question we should be asking ourselves is why so many people saw Tucker’s humanity, but refuse to see it in so many others. For the truth is that almost all execution victims are like Tucker: most come to regret that they killed; most have families who love them; many find religion; a few are even physically attractive. Despite all this, we demonize them. Karla Faye Tucker proved how difficult it is to put to death someone who forces us to acknowledge that she is a human being, and not some feral beast. Tucker’s execution also exposed the hollowness of each of the three traditional justifications for capital punishment. The first is the so-called general deterrence rationale. The idea of general deterrence is that when the state executes a convicted murderer, it sends the message to others thinking about murder, and discourages them from killing. Bank robbers, for example, will presumably load their guns with blanks instead of live ammunition, so that when they brandish them during the course of a robbery, no one will inadvertently get shot. One problem with the general deterrence argument is that violent criminals do not engage in the cost-benefit analysis the theory assumes they will. In her drug-crazed spasm of violence, Karla Faye Tucker did not contemplate how she might be punished. Even though more than three executions a month are carried out here, bank robbers in Texas still use bullets. Indeed, despite two decades of research, there is no persuasive data at all that the death penalty provides any general deterrence. Moreover, executions occur so regularly in America that they are not newsworthy. In Texas, where thirty-seven men were put to death in 1997 alone, implementation of the death penalty is so common so mundane that the state’s largest newspapers no longer even send reporters to death row when executions are scheduled. If no one pays attention to the implementation of the penalty, it is impossible for anyone to be deterred by it. The second reason cited in support of the death penalty is specific deterrence. The idea of specific deterrence is that even if executing a criminal does not send a message to murderers in general that they had better not kill, it does send a message to a particular murderer: i.e., the one who is executed. That murderer, at least, will never kill again. The specific deterrence rationale is compelling in a statistical sense, because it is true, one hundred percent of the time, that executed murderers never murder again. Of course, there is another way to keep murderers from murdering again, and that is to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives in other words, to have a genuine sentence of life without parole. Most states, including Texas, do not provide juries in capital cases with this option. Yet although 75 percent of the public expresses support for capital punishment, this figure drops significantly, by some 15 percent or more, 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 13, 1998