Most of us never question the legitimacy of the death penalty. Moreover, those that are opposed to it can at least understand how a jury can impose the ultimate sentence on the likes of, say, Timothy McVeigh or Ricky Lee Green.
The death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1972 , and with the decision came the expected uproar by the civil libertarians. As time passed, however, the opposition grew both relatively tired and silent. But just like platform shoes of that era have made a comeback, so may the anti-death penalty forces. Their rallying cry will no doubt reference February 3, 1998.
On that date, shortly after 6:00 p.m., the State of Texas intends to put Karla Faye Tucker to death.
You must have seen Ms. Tucker on television by now. I have to admit she doesn't fit the mold of your typical capital murderer. She is articulate, soft spoken, and at least appears to be reasonable human being. Images of Ricky Lee Green do not come to mind.
But, of course, she was sentenced to death for a reason. According to trial testimony, Ms. Tucker and a male companion broke into a Houston apartment on June 13, 1983, to steal motorcycle parts. The apartment was occupied by a man who was subsequently bludgeoned with a hammer by Ms. Tucker's companion followed by Ms. Tucker repeatedly striking the injured man with the ax to stop him from making a gurgling sound. A female occupant of the apartment, whom had been hiding under a blanket, was also killed by Ms. Tucker when her presence was detected.
Ok, maybe Ricky Lee Green does come to mind.
The killing, however, was 15 years ago, and Ms. Tucker claims to have become a born again Christian while in prison. Such a reformation isn't that unusual. A few days ago the Fort Worth Star Telegram ran a story setting forth the last words of all 37 convicts put to death last year. Most made reference to God and their expectation of salvation.
So why the big controversy about the February 3rd execution date? Is it because she is female? Is it because she "doesn't look the part"? Is it simply because she looks and sounds like you and me? Maybe the answer is all of the above.
Whatever the reason, there is a firestorm brewing. Any "cause" in this country needs a poster child. AIDS awareness advocates had Ryan White. Civil Rights proponents had Rodney King. Video in the courtroom opponents point to O.J. Simpson while sexual harassment awareness groups embraced Anita Hill.
Ironically, Karla Faye Tucker may be what the death penalty opponents have been looking for. After years of losing the argument for the abolishment of the death penalty in the court of public opinion , Ms. Tucker may provide an mechanism for a different approach. It is not 12 citizens handing out justice against an animal of a defendant, the group will argue, it is instead the Government putting to death someone to whom the public can relate. For the first time they will have a face that they are not ashamed to be associated with. Video clips from Ms. Tucker's appearance on Larry King Live will no doubt be played over and over again.
Despite their best efforts, I don't believe groups like Amnesty International will be successful in their goal to change the attitude of most Americans on the issue of capital punishment. Nevertheless, by focusing on the execution of Ms. Tucker, they may make us feel at least a bit uneasy.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.