In the months preceding her execution, Karla was seen by tv audiences coast to coast. Nationally syndicated columnists took up her cause and reporters dropped everything to interview her. Once her execution became imminent, the prison received more than 300 phone calls a week about her. During that time Karla spoke with a number of prominent talk show hosts.7 Even the US Information Agency, an arm of the federal government that deals with foreign press, called the prison regularly with questions from around the world.
With the help of every available form of media, Karla managed to make allies of Pat Robertson, Bianca Jagger, Mike Farrell, Pope John Paul (William F. Buckley, Houston Chronicle, 3 January 1998), and the American Civil Liberties Union. For at least one moment, religious conservatives and civil libertarians were in agreement (Allan Turner and T. J. Milling, Houston Chronicle, 3 February 1998). Neither the best of times nor the worst of times, this was a time when closed minds opened if only for a moment. One Christian broadcasting network explained: “She didn’t fit what we thought people on death row were like” (Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe, 6 February 1998). When speaking of Karla, watchwords shifted from vengeance to redemption, from justice to mercy (Jan Ferris, Sacramento Bee, 3 February 1998).
Some citizens felt uncomfortable at having to face Karla Faye Tucker every day. People didn’t like seeing her on television smiling and looking beautiful just before being executed. Her whiteness, her femaleness, her photogenic Christian-ness made her the exception to almost every rule. Watching her on tv, it was easy to forget her fourteen-year-old crime. Those who “fit” the image of people on death row in the United States are disproportionately black and almost entirely male. As the Reverend Jim Wallis, editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners said, the test would be “to apply that same compassion to a young black man who’s had a conversion to Islam.. .or to someone who’s had no religious conversion at all (Carol Fennelly, July/August, 1998).
Huntsville, Texas, had witnessed many executions but none came close to the media circus of Karla Faye’s last days. There were throes of media encamped there, and witnesses say conversations with Huntsville residents were mainly about the streets lined with satellite trucks downtown near the Death House and the stadium-sized lights pointed at the Walls Unit, where executions take place. According to locals, however, the day of her death was a typical one in the east Texas town. “This isn’t as unusual an occurrence for us as it is for everyone else,” explained one person. “This just happens to be the town where the executions take place” (Don McLeese, American Statesman, 4 February 1998).
Inside the Walls Unit Karla began her last day like everyone else, waiting to see whether the US Supreme Court might issue a stay of execution or whether Governor George W. Bush would grant a thirty-day reprieve (Jay Root and John Moritz, Fort Worth Star Telegram, 4 February 1998). Reporters and camera crews clearly outnumbered protesters that day (Bruce Tomaso and Lee Hancock, Dallas Morning News, 4 February 1998). Ken Shimomura, a New York-based Japanese correspondent in Huntsville for the execution, said people in Japan were intrigued that Karla’s gender caused such a commotion. “Why is the fact that she is a female such a big issue?” he asked. “In Japan there are very few executions, and there is a big argument every time. But in that argument, gender is never a factor” (Don McLeese, American Statesman, 4 February 1998).
A music store in Huntsville advertised: “karly faye tucker sale—killer prices—deals to die for.” A student from Sam Houston State University claimed to represent the victims and held a sign that read, “forget injection—use a pickax” (Don McLeese, American Statesman, 1998). Another sign seen that day read “die like a man” and yet another, referring to both the crime and Karla’s religious conversion, said “axe and you shall receive, texas 2:98” (Peter Canellos, Boston Globe, 4 February 1998). As the afternoon wore on, the crowd grew larger and edgier. Chants of “mercy for Karla” were shouted down with “Kill her, kill her!” and “She sliced, she diced, and now she’s got to pay the price!” (Allan Turner and T. J. Milling, Houston Chronicle, 3 February 1998). Police tried to calm things down several times, but the only time it got quiet, at least temporarily, was when a music video by Karla’s Houston church showed her image on a giant screen across the street from the prison. In the video Karla was swaying and signing the words of a hymn a woman vocalist sang, “When Jesus, my precious Savior, comes to take my soul away.” A preacher in front of the screen spoke about “the glory of forgiveness” (Bruce Tomaso and Lee Hancock, Dallas Morning News, 4 February 1998).
The Dallas Morning News reported that shortly after six in the evening, everyone learned that Karla’s appeals had been denied. A loud cheer went up from the pro-death penalty crowd and Karla’s supporters began singing “Amazing Grace.” Those who supported capital punishment periodically shouted the singers down and several ministers led groups in prayer (Bruce Tomaso and Lee Hancock, 4 February 1998). “We’re going to pray for Karla Faye Tucker, for the
victims and their families, for everyone involved,” said the Reverend James C. Morgan of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “Outside the prison, you have people for the death penalty and protesters opposed. I have a feeling that a lot of people are in the middle. We have to come together and acknowledge that we live in a very violent society and acknowledge our failure in dealing with that violence” (Allan Turner and T. J. Milling, Houston Chronicle, 3 February 1998).
As the camerawoman makes broad sweeps of the area, I focus on two groups that have formed on either side of the gate in front of the prison. On the left, the pro-death penalty people arrive and begin to unpack. They have posters with victim pictures and greet each other as old friends. It seems more like a backyard party than like an execution. They are sitting on the tailgates of pickups and going in and out of camper vans. Some are lighting charcoal in barbecue grills. The aroma of fried bacon fills the night air.
A symbolic gesture is performed at each Oklahoma execution: on the right, there is a circle-of-prayer. A Roman Catholic priest encourages new arrivals to take a book and a candle. The number of executions in Oklahoma has generated a book of prayers to be used at executions. This group is quiet, making every effort to ignore the assembly on the other side. Many are familiar with the routine.
I look at the prison. It is situated on a massive hill in front of us on a blanket of soft sculptured grass. There is absolutely no movement, no sign whatsoever that there is any form of life inside. Except for the wire fence rising out of beds of overflowing flowers one might mistake this for a museum. A closed museum. It is eight thirty by my watch. This means the order has been given for “strap down.” With Nadean on the table someone is probing her arms looking for a suitable vein to insert a needle. I wonder what Nadean is thinking and feeling. Who does she see as she looks around for the last time? I have a hard time grounding myself in the moment. Everything seems surreal. I have known Nadean for ten years. She is the first woman I met on death row. I do not know how to be at this moment. I am grieved beyond any words I know.
Karla’s final TV appearance was on The 700 Club, a program hosted by the Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson (Bill Geroux, Richmond-Times Dispatch, 3 February 1998). She said her supporters should not question God if she were to be executed. “If I go home February third, don’t take that as God not answering our prayers,” she said. Robertson, normally a death penalty supporter, used her appearance on his program to tout her religious conversion and urged his viewers to pray for her survival.
Asked what her thoughts would be when strapped to the gurney, Karla replied, “I’m going to be thinking about what it’s like in heaven. I’m going to be thinking about my family, my friends and the pain. I’m going to be thankful for all of the love, probably wishing there was a way to give everybody a hug” (Michael Graczyk, Associated Press, 4 February 1998). An Associated Press report published 4 February 1998, the day after Karla’s execution, tells us she went to her death “calm, composed and contrite.” Michael Graczyk, the only reporter among Karla’s witnesses, gave the account. He says that she was already strapped to the gurney, with leather belts across her chest, body, legs, and arms, when they went in. The warden stood near her head and the prison chaplain at her feet. When the warden asked if she had a final statement she turned to the window where the victim witnesses were and said, “Yes sir. I would like to say to all of you—the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family— that I am sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this.” Karla then turned to the window with the witnesses she had invited and spoke to her husband, Dana Brown, saying, “Baby, I love you.” To Ron Carlson, the brother of the woman she killed, who befriended her and who opposes the death penalty, she said, “Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me.” Finally, she said, “I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.” She then closed her eyes, licked her lips, and began to pray silently. When the order was given to let the drugs flow into her veins, she gasped twice, she let out a five to ten second wheeze as the air escaped from her lungs. She died with her eyes open. Her mouth was also slightly open. It all took about four minutes.
After the people outside were notified that Karla had been executed her friends and supporters held a spontaneous rally, singing gospel songs to the accompaniment of an electric keyboard. There was clapping and dancing. “We’re celebrating that God has called her to heaven,” one of the ministers explained (Bruce Tomaso and Lee Hancock, Dallas Morning News, 4 February 1998). A Question of Mercy: The Karla Faye Tucker Story, a documentary, was broadcast on Court tv later in February of that same year (1998). It featured interviews with Karla, her lawyer, family members of the victims, the arresting officer, and the prosecutor. The show focused on both the victims’ side and Karla Faye Tucker’s side, stressing the human, not just the legal, issues involved in the case.