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National Perspective | CULTURE

Texas Takes Another Life, Minus Crowds, Crusaders and Cameras

Attention that was showered on condemned woman is absent when Steven Renfro followed her in death.

February 12, 1998|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Life is back to normal in this prison town. So is death.

On Monday, just six days after the spectacle of Karla Faye Tucker's execution, it was Steven Ceon Renfro's turn. The rowdy throng of ralliers, estimated at 1,200 the week before, was down to a sober two dozen. The "satellite city" that had been populated by more than 200 reporters from around the world was now four local TV crews and a couple of guys with note pads. No word from Pat Robertson or Pope John Paul II, both of whom had sought to keep Tucker from becoming the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

"You don't have Bianca Jagger here," said Renfro's prosecutor, Harrison County Dist. Atty. Rick Berry, feigning disappointment that Mick's ex had not stuck around after making a cameo on Feb. 3.

The circus that day had been so intense that one protester, whose son is on death row, reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. On Monday, even in the final hour of Renfro's life, the mood was mellow enough that prison spokesman David Nunnelee had time to smoke a few cigarettes and work on a crossword puzzle.

"Night and day," Nunnelee said.

He paused, trying to conjure a comparison that would appeal to Los Angeles readers. "The difference between Karla Faye's execution and this one," he concluded, "is like the difference between the number of people who have seen 'Titanic' and the number who have seen 'Waterworld.' "

To be fair, Renfro was not looking for publicity. The 40-year-old triple-murderer refused all interview requests and waived all appeals. He wanted to die. But even if he had launched an all-out legal blitz and pleaded with Gov. George W. Bush for clemency, it seems unlikely his case would have generated a fraction of the publicity heaped upon Tucker.

Like all but one of the 146 inmates put to death here since the reinstatement of capital punishment, Renfro was a man. Tucker, on the other hand, was not just a woman. "She was white, she was Christian, she was articulate and she was attractive," said David Dow, a University of Houston law professor. "All of those factors, taken together, allowed her to do what very few death row inmates are able to do--to convince the public that they are human beings, that they are something more than their crimes."

The only other U.S. woman put to death in the last two decades--North Carolina serial poisoner Velma Barfield, executed in 1984--shared some of those qualities. As with Tucker, who had the support of religious leaders, Barfield had the backing of the Rev. Billy Graham. But where Barfield was a portly, bespectacled grandmother--"a tough-looking old broad," as a Newsweek correspondent recently put it--Tucker was a slim, fine-boned woman of 38 with artfully applied lipstick and rouge.

Most reporters who interviewed her made some mention of her doe-eyed gaze or curly brown mane. Writing in this week's issue of the New Yorker, novelist Beverly Lowry was even blunter, taking stock of Tucker's "direct, uncompromised, highly sexual charm." In her wild teenage years, it is worth recalling, Karla did curry favor with the Allman Brothers, shacking up on the road with the band.

"The irony in all of this is that the very factors that made Karla Faye Tucker a media darling made it impossible for her execution to be avoided," said Dow, who has appealed numerous death row cases in Texas. "People will watch somebody on TV because they're pretty, but if you ask them, 'Should somebody not be executed because they're pretty?' they will say no, of course. She was perfect for commanding a lot of media attention, but she was not perfect for really bringing into stark relief all of the moral issues surrounding the death penalty."

No problem there for Renfro. More than 12,000 people called the governor's office about Tucker's case; seven called for him. When the media witnesses emerged after his execution, nobody quizzed them about his demeanor, his expression, his final gasps and groans.

Tucker's last words were international news, reported live on TV. But Renfro's were not so different.

"Take my hand, Lord Jesus," he said, just before the poison entered his veins. "I'm coming home."

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