Karla Faye Tucker (November 18, 1959 – February 3, 1998) was the first woman to be executed in the United States since 1984, and the first in Texas since 1863.
She was convicted of murder in Texas in 1984 and put to death fourteen years later.
Because of her gender and widely publicized conversion to Christianity, she inspired an unusually large national and international movement advocating the commutation of her sentence to life imprisonment, a movement that included a few foreign government officials.
Karla Tucker was born and raised in Houston, Texas, the youngest of three sisters. Her father Larry was a longshoreman. The marriage of her parents was very troubled, and Tucker started smoking cigarettes with her sisters when she was eight years old. At the age of 10, her parents divorced, and during the divorce proceedings, she learned that she had been the result of an extramarital affair. By age 12, she had turned to drugs and sex.
When she was 14, she dropped out of school and followed her mother Carolyn, a rock groupie, into prostitution and began traveling with the Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, and the Eagles. At age 16, she was married briefly to a mechanic named Stephen Griffith. In her early 20s, she began hanging out with bikers, and met a woman named Shawn Dean and her husband Jerry Lynn Dean, who introduced her to a man named Danny Garrett in 1981.
After spending the weekend taking drugs with Garrett and their friends, Tucker and Garrett entered Jerry Dean’s home around 3 a.m. on Monday, June 13, 1983, intending to steal Dean’s motorcycle. James Leibrant, a friend, went with them to Dean’s apartment complex. Leibrant reported that he went looking for Dean’s El Camino while Tucker and Garrett entered the apartment with a set of keys that Tucker claimed Shawn Dean had lost and Tucker had found.
During the burglary, Tucker and Garrett entered Dean’s bedroom, where Tucker sat on him. In an effort to protect himself, Dean grabbed Tucker above the elbows, whereupon Garrett intervened. Garrett struck Dean numerous times in the back of the head with a hammer he found on the floor.
After hitting Dean, Garrett left the room to carry motorcycle parts out of the apartment. Tucker remained in the bedroom.
The blows Garrett had dealt Dean caused his head to become unhinged from his neck and his breathing passages to fill with fluid.
He began making a “gurgling” sound characteristic of this type of injury. Tucker wanted to “stop him from making that noise” and attacked him with a pickaxe. Garrett then re-entered the room and dealt Dean a final blow in the chest.
Garrett left the bedroom again to continue loading Dean’s motorcycle parts into his Ranchero. Tucker was once again left in the room and only then noticed a woman who had hidden under the bed covers against the wall. The woman, Deborah Thornton, had met Dean at a party earlier that afternoon.
Upon discovering Thornton, Tucker grazed her shoulder with the pickaxe. Thornton and Tucker began to struggle, but Garrett returned and separated them.
Tucker proceeded to hit Thornton repeatedly with the pickaxe and then embedded the axe in her heart. Tucker would later tell friends and testify that she experienced intense multiple orgasms with each blow of the pickaxe.
The next morning, a co-worker of Dean’s who had been waiting for a ride entered the apartment and discovered the victims’ bodies. Investigation led to the arrests of Tucker and Garrett.
In September 1983, Tucker and Garrett were indicted and tried separately for the murders. Tucker entered a plea of not guilty and was jailed awaiting trial. Soon after being imprisoned, Tucker took a Bible from the prison ministry program and read it in her cell.
She later recalled, “I didn’t know what I was reading. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of my cell floor on my knees. I was just asking God to forgive me.” Tucker became a Christian in October 1983. She later married her prison minister, the Reverend Dana Lane Brown, in 1995 and held her Christian wedding ceremony inside the prison.
Though the death penalty was hardly ever sought for female defendants, Tucker, along with Garrett, was sentenced to death in late 1984. (Garrett died in prison of liver disease in 1993.) She shared her Death Row cell at the Mountain View Unit with her friend Pam Perillo, whose own sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison.
Between 1984 and 1992, requests for a retrial and appeals were denied, but on June 22, Tucker requested that her life be spared on the basis that she was under the influence of drugs at the time of the murders, she would not have committed the murders had she not taken drugs and she was now a reformed person.
Her plea drew support from abroad and also from some leaders of American conservatism.
Among those who appealed to the State of Texas on her behalf were Bacre Waly Ndiaye, the United Nations commissioner on summary and arbitrary executions; the World Council of Churches; Pope John Paul II; Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi; the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; televangelist Pat Robertson; and Ronald Carlson, the brother of Tucker’s murder victim Debbie Thornton.
The warden of Texas’s Huntsville prison testified that she was a model prisoner and that, after 14 years on death row, she likely had been reformed. The board turned her down on 28 January 1998.
While on death row, Karla Faye Tucker was incarcerated in the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas. She became Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Death Row #777.
On February 2, 1998, state authorities took Tucker from the unit in Gatesville and flew her on a TDCJ aircraft, transporting her to the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville. Karla Faye Tucker’s last meal request consisted of a banana, a peach, and a garden salad with ranch dressing.
She selected four people to watch her die which included her sister Kari Weeks, her spouse Dana Brown, her close friend Jackie Oncken, and Ronald Carlson. At one time Ronald Carlson had supported the execution but later after a religious conversion decided that he opposed all executions.
The witnesses for the victims included Thornton’s husband Richard, Thornton’s only child William Joseph Davis and Thornton’s stepdaughter Katie. Tucker’s execution was also witnessed by members of TDCJ, Warden Bagget, and various representatives of the media. Her last words were:
Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you — the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family — that I am so sorry.
I hope God will give you peace with this. [She looked at her husband.] Baby, I love you. [She looked at Ronald Carlson.] Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. [She looked at all present weeping and smiling.] Everybody has been so good to me. 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 was executed by lethal injection on February 3, 1998. As the lethal chemicals were being administered she praised Jesus Christ, licked her lips, looked at the ceiling, and hummed.
Eight minutes after receiving the injection, she was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m. C.S.T. She was the first woman executed in the State of Texas in 135 years, when Chipita Rodriguez was executed by hanging during the American Civil War in 1863, and the second woman executed in the United States since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.
She was buried at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston.
In the year following her execution, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson questioned Governor George W. Bush about how the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had arrived at the determination on her clemency plea.
Carlson alleged that Bush, alluding to a televised interview which Karla Faye Tucker had given to talk show host Larry King, smirked and spoke mockingly about her.
A full length movie was released in 2004 about the life of Tucker entitled Forevermore starring actress Karen Jezek.
The captain of the “Death House Team,” Fred Allen, was interviewed by Werner Herzog for the 2011 documentary Into the Abyss. Within days after Tucker’s execution, one of over 120 he managed, he suffered an emotional breakdown. He resigned his job, giving up his pension, and changed his position on the death penalty.
“I was pro capital punishment. After Karla Faye and after all this, until this day, eleven years later, no sir. Nobody has the right to take another life. I don’t care if it’s the law. And it’s so easy to change the law.”