US justice is deadlier for the male

Karla Tucker could cheat the executioner because she's a woman. John Carlin on a bizarre form of American chivalry
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The Independent Online
EVEN in a country as sensitive to gender politics as the United States there are times when a dash of chivalry, lightly tinged as it might be with male condescension, has its place. Ask Karla Faye Tucker.

In two days' time she has an appointment with death. Barring a last-minute reprieve, she will become only the second woman to be executed in Texas since 1863. The only reason why it is even conceivable she might escape the lethal injection is that she happens to be a young, attractive, pious and seemingly likeable woman.

The statistics show that of the 6,180 people sentenced to die in the US since the restitution of the death penalty in 1976, 116 have been women. Out of 432 that have actually been put to death, only one was a woman.

Last year, Texas executed 37 male prisoners, the same number as in the rest of the US combined. Not one case elicited any public interest, much less controversy, outside the small and hapless circle of American abolitionists. In a country where 70 per cent of the citizens favour the death penalty, where no candidate for elected national office can afford to be seen to oppose it, rarely has the fate of a condemned prisoner elicited such attention and hand-wringing debate. Tucker, the subject of numerous newspaper articles the length and breadth of the US, has appeared on CNN's Larry King Live and CBS's Sixty Minutes, two hugely popular television programmes not usually in the habit of conducting sympathetic interviews with condemned killers. This, as a newspaper in Pittsburgh put it, begs a question: "Would America care if Karla Faye Tucker's name was Karl?" The answer is a resounding "no".

Consider her crime, so savage that it might make the most steadfast opponent of capital punishment pause for thought.

One night 14 years ago she and a friend, Ryan Garrett, broke into an apartment and came across a man and a woman in bed. Garrett smashed the man over the head with a hammer. Tucker struck him 20 times with an axe. At the trial, witnesses reported she had told them that with each swing of the axe she had experienced a sexual rush. "I came with every stroke", one witness quoted her as saying.

The woman was next. Shaking under a bedsheet, knowing she was going to die, she begged Tucker to make it swift. Tucker did not oblige. She hacked at her victim with blow after misdirected blow. Eventually, the killers fled, leaving the axe imbedded in the woman's chest.

Tucker and Garrett, who were found to be high on drugs at the time of the crime, were condemned to death. He cheated the executioner by dying in prison of a liver disease five years ago, all the more reason why the good citizens of Texas might be expected to look on the prospect of Tucker's imminent death with grim satisfaction.

But Texans are divided. Polls show the state's residents have been cut to the quick by her clemency appeals in a way they manifestly were not by the executions of the 37 men last year. Fewer than half of those polled wanted Tucker's execution to go ahead.

Pat Roberston, the right-wing televangelist whose position on the death penalty has always been shaped by Old Testament notions of divine vengeance, has joined the chorus of those pleading with Governor George Bush Jnr to let Tucker live. Mr Roberston has been making common cause with Methodist, Catholic and Lutheran church leaders, with Amnesty International and other abolitionist groups that belong squarely on the left wing of American politics. "The Bible says if anybody is in Christ, he's a new creation," Mr Roberston said. "God forgave Karla".

The preacher's presumption is founded on Tucker's conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. Those of her sympathisers who otherwise support the death penalty have been won over by the revelation that she has dedicated herself selflessly to counselling fellow inmates, especially those recovering from drug addiction, and is generally viewed by the Texas correctional authorities as a model prisoner.

Tucker herself says she is prepared to meet her Maker but that has not prevented her from pursuing all legal means to prolong her stay on earth. Last Friday she lodged a clemency plea before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. If 10 or more of the 18 board members recommend commuting her sentence to life in prison then Governor Bush has the opportunity, if he so chooses, to spare her.

"Even though I did murder that night and did not think anything of it back then, it is now the one thing I regret most in my life," Tucker said in her clemency plea, "justice and law demand my life for the two innocent lives I brutally murdered that night. If my execution is the only thing, the final act that can fulfil the demand for restitution and justice, then I accept that."

One of her lawyers stated the case for mercy more bluntly. "She is totally rehabilitated ... her death would not serve any purpose other than capital vengeance." That may not be the only purpose Governor Bush sees. The son of the former president is planning a presidential run in the year 2000. If it falls on him to make the final decision on Tucker's fate one mental calculation it will be impossible for him to suppress will be whether it would benefit or hamper his bid for the White House to let her live. He would not want to give his opponents a stick with which to beat him. The betting in Texas is that he will do the ungentlemanly thing: go for the safe option and apply the strict letter of the law.