While a majority of Texans still strongly support the death penalty, less than half of them believe pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker should be executed next week, a new statewide poll shows.
The survey, conducted for the Houston Chronicle by the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy and Rice University’s Baker Institute, also shows that Texans start waffling in their support of capital punishment once they can put a face on the condemned prisoner and that gender plays almost no role in their thinking.
“What I find most interesting is that you can’t get a majority of people supporting her execution in a state that’s executed 100-plus people to date,” said pollster Bob Stein of Rice University. “We don’t just lead the nation, we represent a third of all the executions in this country.”
The random telephone survey of 802 adult Texans was conducted Jan. 22-27. It has an error rate of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, meaning the responses may vary that much in either direction.
The Chronicle poll found that 48 percent of respondents said Tucker should be executed, while 24 percent said her sentence should be commuted to life in prison and 27 percent said they did not know enough about her case to form an opinion. The remaining 1 percent said they did not know how they felt or refused to answer.
The large bloc of undecided respondents is most likely because few people are paying close attention to Tucker’s case, Stein said. Only 18 percent of respondents said they had followed her story “very closely,” while 44 percent said they followed it somewhat and 38 percent indicated they paid little heed to the condemned inmate.
“I’m not sure the media coverage was all that great during the time we polled,” Stein said. Polling started Jan. 22, after news stories surfaced alleging that President Clinton had a sexual affair with a former White House intern and then asked her to lie about it.
“Had the story on Clinton not broken, perhaps there would have been more interest in this (Tucker) case,” Stein added.
The poll also found significant difference in support for Tucker’s execution based on ethnicity, with whites far more likely to say she should be killed than blacks or Hispanics. Fifty-five percent of whites favor her execution, compared with 21 percent of black respondents and 35 percent of Hispanics.
Tucker, 38, is scheduled to die by injection Tuesday for the 1983 pickax slaying of Jerry Lynn Dean, in one of the grisliest crimes in Houston history. Also killed was Deborah Thornton, although Tucker was never tried in her death.
Her request for a commutation is pending before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is not expected to reach a decision until Monday. Tucker also has asked Gov. George W. Bush to commute her sentence, or at least delay her execution for 30 days. The governor, however, cannot commute her sentence unless the parole board recommends such action.
In recent weeks, Tucker has pressed her case for clemency in an international media blitz campaign.
Nonetheless, her execution moved another step closer to reality Wednesday when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed her claims that she is a born-again Christian who no longer represents a threat to society and that the state’s commutation process is unconstitutional.
If she is put to death, she will be the first woman executed in Texas since 1863, when Chipita Rodriguez was hanged in San Patricio County for the ax-murder of a horse trader.
The Chronicle poll also found that 61 percent of Texans support the death penalty in general - a significantly lower rate than the 75 percent approval rating for the death penalty in a Dallas Morning News survey conducted last week and the 76 percent who said they favor capital punishment in the 1997 Texas Crime Poll conducted by the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University.
That difference in support, Stein explained, is likely a reflection of the methodology used in the poll. Interviewers focused first on the Tucker case and then asked general questions about support for the death penalty.
Had the general questions about death penalty support been asked first, he said, support for capital punishment likely would have been 8 to 10 percentage points higher and support for Tucker would have dropped.
Support for carrying out her execution drops off even more, however, when death penalty advocates were asked whether her alleged abusive upbringing and her Christian rebirth would make a difference.
Some 40 percent of respondents said they would still support her execution even if they learned Tucker had been encouraged by her prostitute mother to use illegal drugs and to work as a prostitute - claims Tucker has raised in her clemency proceedings. In contrast, 11 percent said that given those circumstances her sentence should be commuted to life, and 49 percent said they did not know or did not have enough information to decide.
“There was no evidence of gender bias,” Stein said. “Women were no more sympathetic that men.”
Graphic: Women and crime: Few women face death penalty