Karla Tucker's Legacy: The Death Penalty Debate Takes a Turn

By Dionne, E. J., Jr. | Commonweal, February 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Karla Tucker's Legacy: The Death Penalty Debate Takes a Turn


Dionne, E. J., Jr., Commonweal


Before Karla Faye Tucker's execution fades from our memories, it's worth pondering the legacy she left behind. After committing a brutal act, she repented and softened the hearts of tens of millions of Americans. She forced them to look afresh at what they really think of the death penalty.

The Tucker execution, I suspect, will be a turning point in our country's long and difficult debate over whether capital punishment is right. It is presumed that because support for the death penalty is now so overwhelming in the United States, it has always been thus. But that is not true. At other times in our history, most recently three decades ago, we looked far more skeptically upon this ultimate punishment.

We worried then about many of the things that Karla Faye Tucker forced us to think about now: whether executing someone is the best way to declare our mutual commitment to the principle that taking another's life is wrong; whether people who do truly terrible things are, from that moment on, pariahs who have no contributions to make to the rest of us; and, most basically, whether we're comfortable in our souls with the collective responsibility we assume when the state puts someone to death.

Foes of capital punishment often find themselves defending people who not only did awful things, but seem to have no remorse for having done them. They are hard-pressed to answer the families of murder victims shouting for just vengeance. The best case for the death penalty is that it is the only just sentence for a human being who takes the life of another. I am opposed to capital punishment but know that ! would want the person who killed a loved one to die. It would not seem fair that such a person would long outlive his or her victim.

But Tucker reminded us of all the irrationalities of the death penalty - how it is unevenly applied, how it answers one form of brutality with another and becomes a spectacle.

The power of the Tucker case came from the challenge her execution posed to Christian conservatives who support the death penalty in principle. Many of them came to believe that she, a born-again Christian who appeared truly to have repented of her double murder with a pickax, deserved clemency. …

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