GATESVILLE, Texas — The debate over Karla Faye Tucker's execution next month has everything and nothing to do with her sex.
Fairness dictates that it should not be a factor, that if we are to have a death penalty, it must apply equally to women as well as to men. The laws of Texas, home to the nation's most active death chamber, make no mention of gender in determining which killers should be condemned. It certainly made no difference to Tucker's two victims, both of whom died from a pickax in their chests.
But if it is so irrelevant, why has only one American woman been put to death since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976? Why has Texas, responsible for one out of every three U.S. executions, failed to execute a woman since the Civil War? Why has conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, a death penalty proponent, publicly pleaded for Tucker's life? And why have reporters from around the world lined up to interview her--"this sweet woman of God," as a "60 Minutes" piece recently gushed.
"If it was Karl Tucker instead of Karla Tucker, I don't think we'd be having this conversation," said Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University's College of Law and an expert on female executions. "Nobody says it, because it's not politically correct, but there is a gender bias in the system--a double standard for women and men."
Women, of course, do not kill as often as men. And when they do, their crimes tend to be mitigated by domestic conflict--striking back at an abusive husband, for instance--as opposed to the predatory slayings for which the death penalty is usually reserved.
Even so, the numbers remain skewed. Women account for one of every eight people arrested for murder, but only one of every 50 sentenced to death. They account for one of every 70 people on death row, but only 1 of the 432 actually put to death in the last two decades--the exception being North Carolina grandmother Velma Barfield, a serial poisoner who was executed in 1984 for slipping roach killer into her fiance's beer.
Tucker does not say that her Feb. 3 execution should be halted because she is a woman. Rather, she says it is because of the kind of woman she has become during her 14 years behind bars--caring, repentant and deeply religious, a born-again Christian married to a prison minister, who together believe they can help save souls as lost as Tucker's once was.
"This is not about me trying to save my life; this is about the power of God almighty to change a life," she said during an interview at the women's death row here in Central Texas, which houses seven of the nation's 48 condemned women. "The world may not agree with that. They may not think I deserve that. And quite frankly, I don't deserve that. But it's a free gift from God. He gave it to me and I received it. We all have the ability, after we've done something horrible, to make a change for the good."
Gender may not be an explicit component of her plea, but being a petite, photogenic, rosy-lipped woman of 38 with flowing brown curls has surely kept it from falling on deaf ears.
From Prostitute to Missionary
A former juror and the sister of one of Tucker's victims both have hailed her transformation from drugged-out prostitute to Bible-quoting missionary.
Pat Robertson, who does not make it a practice to rally behind death row inmates, calls Tucker an "extraordinary woman" whose "authentic spiritual conversion" cries out for mercy. "The cross is the ultimate symbol of God's love," he told viewers of his Christian Broadcasting Network. "Karla Faye came to that cross and she was forgiven."
Still, men of all faiths--not just evangelical Protestants but also Catholics, Muslims and other worshipers--are executed with regularity in Texas, their piety generally dismissed with a shrug. Victims-rights groups say such conversions are belated and immaterial at best, cynical and conniving at worst. Setting aside the question of its authenticity, why should Tucker's religious awakening carry any more weight?
"She's had her mercy," said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based judicial reform group. "She's had 14 years to put herself right by God."
Although Texas has not executed a woman since 1863, when Chipita Rodriguez was hanged for murdering a horse trader, all the signals coming from Gov. George W. Bush suggest that the state's historic squeamishness may be a thing of the past. Bush often speaks of the importance of faith and would value the support of religious conservatives like Robertson in a presidential bid. But he has never commuted or delayed a single death sentence, even as a record 37 were carried out in 1997 alone.