Karla Faye Tucker, the “Pickax Killer” turned born-again Christian, died of a lethal injection Tuesday night, closing a long fight for her life as a crowd outside the Texas death house prayed for her soul.
Tucker, 38, was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m. Central Standard Time, becoming the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War and only the second in the United States since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976. Although she and her attorneys had played down her gender in their many pleas for clemency, the fact that she was a woman helped arouse international interest in her cause and generate appeals for mercy from figures including Pope John Paul II and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.
Wearing a white prison uniform and white tennis shoes, Tucker lay strapped on her back on a gurney as she delivered her final statements to the gathered witnesses, who included her husband, Dana Brown, a prison ministry worker she married by proxy in 1995, and Ronald Carlson, a Houston machinist and brother of one of the victims.
“I love all of you very much,” she said to the witnesses. “I am going to be face to face with Jesus now.”
Addressing her husband, she said, “Baby, I love you.”
Then a lethal dose of sodium thiopental began dripping into the veins of each arm, along with pancuronium bromide, which is a muscle relaxant, and potassium chloride, which stops the heartbeat. Her eyes quickly closed, and within a few minutes, she was dead. Officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that Tucker also could have requested a sedative, but did not.
The scene was emotional outside the Department of Criminal Justice facility, called the death house, in this east Texas town of 35,000 about 60 miles north of Houston. Several hundred people on both sides of the issue crowded against yellow police lines, some still arguing over the value of the death penalty, others praying and singing “Amazing Grace” and other hymns.
“Bye bye, Karla Faye,” read one sign. “Forget Injection, Use a Pickaxe,” read another.
But many others here were sympathetic to Tucker’s plight: “I’m Ashamed to be a Texan,” one sign read, and another said: “Jesus Loves Karla Faye and So Do I.”
Cheers went up from some in the crowd when her death was announced.
The case had divided victims’ families. Carlson, brother of Deborah Thornton, one of the two people Tucker was convicted of helping to kill, participated in rallies at the state Capitol in Austin asking that Tucker be spared. Richard Thornton, the victim’s husband, argued that he was sick of the depiction of Tucker as “Miss Saint.”
One witness said Thornton, who is in a wheelchair with severe diabetes and was a witness to the execution, muttered throughout the proceedings. “The world’s a better place,” he was heard to say during the execution.
It had become increasingly clear on Monday that despite Tucker’s efforts to show she was a changed person, notably in televised appearances on “60 Minutes,” Robertson’s “The 700 Club,” and CNN, her quest to have her life spared had failed. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which could have commuted her sentence to life in prison, voted 16-0, with two members abstaining, to deny her request. Tucker, who could have been eligible for parole in 2003 had the board agreed, had asked that she be given life in prison without the possibility of release, but there is no such sentence in Texas, and board members said they could not make a special case of Tucker.
After the board’s ruling, Tucker’s only hope lay with the U.S. Supreme Court, which turned down two appeals without comment Tuesday afternoon, and Gov. George W. Bush, who, under the law, could only grant her one 30-day stay. But in Texas, the national leader in executions with one out of every three that occurs in the United States, governors have seldom intervened in death-penalty cases. Bush was no exception.
“May God bless Karla Faye Tucker, and may God bless her victims and their families,” Bush said after declining to grant the stay.
Tucker said that as she waited in the Harris County Jail for her trial, her head began to clear from the years of drugs. Through meeting with jail-ministry workers, she said she found religion and the peace that sustained her for more than 14 years on death row.
In her final days, an unusual assortment of people rallied to her cause, including the pope and the Rev. Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of “The 700 Club,” who normally supports the death penalty. “The 700 Club” broadcast Tucker’s final interview Tuesday, in which she discussed what she might be thinking as she lay waiting on the gurney.
“I am going to be thinking certainly about what it’s like in heaven,” she said. “I’m going to be thinking about my family and my friends and the pain. I am going to be thankful for all the love.”