Enter Karla Faye Tucker
The 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker provided us with the first “almost – televised” execution in history. There was so much media coverage (leading up to the actual execution day) that, by the time it arrived, most of us felt we knew Karla intimately.5 The extent of this coverage was partly because she was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War and in the United States since 1984 (Post Dispatch, 4 February 1998), and partly because Karla was a made-for-TV woman. She was young, attractive, white, articulate, and a born-again Christian—basically a reporter’s dream. The Houston Chron
icle described Karla as “a Bible-reading angelic-looking woman with pink – tinged lips, lightly freckled face and cascading dark curls” (Shipman 2002, 287). Listening to and watching her on numerous tv talk shows it was easy to forget she had committed a brutal crime.
By the age of eight Karla was doing hard drugs and by eleven she was mainlining heroin (O’Shea 1998,343-44). In Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir Beverly Lowry tells us Karla was a “doper at 8, a needle freak behind heroin by the time she was 11” (quoted in Sam Howe Verhovek, New York Times, 1 January 1998). According to Karla, she was never without drugs from ten years of age until four months before her twenty-fourth birthday, when she was incarcerated. Karla had dropped out of school before completing the seventh grade and had had her first sexual encounter at twelve or thirteen. According to Lowry, Karla first “turned tricks with her mother” around the same age.
Karla started shooting heroin while living with her father at the age of twelve. When she was thirteen her mother let her tour with the Allman Brothers Band, and on these trips she started using cocaine. In a New York Times interview Lowry admitted, “I had a lot of sympathy for Karla’s mother despite the fact that she was a woman who encouraged her teen-age daughters in drug abuse and prostitution” (quoted in Francine Prose, New York Times Book Review, August 1992).
Karla worked as a prostitute to support her drug habit until a few months before the murders of Gerry Dean and Deborah Thornton, for which she was executed. As previously published accounts tell us, Karla knew Dean and Thornton, and the murders were said to be unplanned. Karla’s narrative tells us of a plan initiated by a friend, Danny Garrett, to steal Dean’s motorcycle. Karla, Danny Garrett, and Jimmy Leibrant (another friend) then went over to Dean’s to “case the place out.” They thought they would then return another night to break in.
When they got to Dean’s apartment, Karla opened the door, saw Dean lying on a mattress on the floor, sat on him, and then started wrestling with him. Danny Garrett eventually intervened, hitting Dean repeatedly over the head with a hammer. When Karla turned on the lights Dean was lying face down on the mattress. Blood was pouring from his mouth and he was making gurgling sounds. Karla said at her trial that she didn’t like that sound and wanted to make it stop (Court tv 1998). With this in mind she picked up Dean’s pickax, which was leaning against the wall, and hit him several times. When he kept making the same gurgling sounds Karla told Garrett it bothered her. Garrett then took the pickax and hit Dean until the noise stopped. Shortly after Garrett killed Dean, Karla noticed someone else moving under the covers. She grabbed the pickax from Garrett and hit the other person in the shoulder. Garrett was in the other room when Deborah Thornton stood up and tried to take the pickax out of her shoulder. When he came back, Karla left the room. At her trial, she testified she returned to see Garrett kill Deborah Thornton. Garrett left the pickax embedded in Deborah’s chest, which is where the police found it the next day (Mike Ward, American Statesman, 28 January 1998).
After the murders, neither Garrett nor Karla Faye attempted to leave town. In fact, they continued living at home and occasionally bragged about what they had done. Ultimately, eight months down the line, they were turned in by their respective siblings: Danny Garrett’s brother, Doug, and Karla’s sister, Kari. Doug Garrett recorded Karla on tape telling him how she had an orgasm every time she swung the axe that killed Jerry Dean. She later recanted that statement, saying she had only spoken that way to impress him (O’Shea 1999). Both Garrett and Karla were sentenced to death. Liebrant testified against them for a life sentence.
During the fourteen years of her incarceration Karla received a lot of support from Christian groups, especially a Texas group called “Family Life."6 Family Life members said they believed that Karla had changed (Shipman 2002, 290) during her years of incarceration. Apparently her situation had changed others too. Ultra-conservative Pat Robertson did a complete turnaround after meeting Karla. Always known for his pro-death penalty stance, with regard to Karla he told his national tv audience “in every law there has to be an exception for mercy.. .she’s not the same person as before.. .what you have now is an absolutely vulnerable, wonderful human being whose life has been transformed” (Bill Geroux, Richmond-Times Dispatch, 3 February 1998).
In 1995, while still on death row, Karla Faye Tucker married prison ministry worker Dana Brown. Since prison policy forbids weddings, Karla and Dana were married by proxy in separate ceremonies inside and outside of the prison, respectively. Before marrying, Brown and Tucker enjoyed the privacy afforded the chaplain-prisoner relationship. After the marriage he could no longer serve in that capacity. Of their relationship, Karla said, “Since we don’t have a physical relationship to get in the way, we have a totally spiritual relationship that’s so deep, a lot of people wouldn’t understand.”
Brown was present at Karla’s execution and said, “Her gain today was our loss.. .she was someone who literally reached thousands of people for Jesus and probably will continue to do so through her testimony. Even though she cried out for forgiveness, God gave her just what she needed. That was love” (Ann Hodges, Houston Chronicle, 4 February 1998). After the execution Brown took her body to an undisclosed funeral home and said he had not decided where she would be buried.