Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 15, 1998 / 17 Tevet, 5758
Capital Punishment and the Hard Case
No exceptions for Karla Faye Tucker
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IS SERIOUS STUFF. That's why supporters of the death penalty must unflinchingly confront the tough cases.
Opponents usually ignore questions that make them uncomfortable. Example: Was hanging the Nuremberg defendants, the architects of genocide, justified?
For those who think the death penalty is just, Timothy McVeigh is an easy call. The Oklahoma City bomber, who murdered 168 innocents in cold-blood, has never shown an ounce of remorse.
But what about a brutal killer who has sincerely repented, who no longer poses a danger to society and who is -- in every sense of the word -- a changed person?
Should Karla Faye Tucker die? Unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends commutation, and Gov. George W. Bush (who has yet to commute a capital sentence) concurs, Tucker will die on Feb. 3.
A cause celebre for both the anti-death penalty crowd (which considers her "a wonderful argument for the rehabilitative functions of prison") and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, Tucker has been the subject of a 60 Minutes story and a front-page article in The New York Times on Jan. 1.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen thinks Tucker is a compelling argument against capital punishment. As she has changed -- grown older, wiser and more humane -- so can other killers behind bars, Cohen argues. ("Whatever the case, the jails are now full of men who are not the men they used to be.") Possibly, but this misses the point. Their victims are still what they were after the crime.
In Tucker's case, there has admittedly been a radical transformation. Convicted of first-degree murder for her part in a grisly double homicide 14 years ago, the former addict and part-time prostitute, who bragged that she had an orgasm while hacking away at her victims with a pickax, became a born-again Christian in prison.
Guards say she's now one of the kindest, gentlest inmates they've encountered. Tucker, who never denied her guilt, has earned a high-school diploma, married a prison minister and will "testify" to anyone within the range of her voice.
If she were released tomorrow, chances are she wouldn't jaywalk or litter, much less violate society's more weighty injunctions.
Nevertheless, one can rejoice in Tucker's faith, feel compassion for the woman she has become and still believe that the sentence should be carried out.
Her conversion hasn't altered the status of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton. They are every bit as dead as they were on the day in 1983 when (in the course of a burglary) Tucker and her boyfriend did construction work on their torsos with a 3-foot-long pickax.
According to Christian doctrine, by repenting her sins and accepting Jesus as her savior Tucker has achieved salvation. The Talmud says that up to the hour of a sinner's death, God awaits his return.
But nowhere in the Old or New Testament is it written that repentance negates punishment by the temporal authorities.
In Deuteronomy, the death penalty is stipulated for a host of crimes in unequivocal terms: "He shall surely die," "Thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die." The Bible does not add as an afterthought, "Oh, by the way, if he repents, his sentence shall be commuted."
On Yom Kippur, we are taught that contrition (along with charity and prayer) remits offenses against God, not against man. For the latter, amends must be made to the victim and his pardon asked.
God will forgive Karla Faye Tucker for violating his commandments. But only the victims can forgive her for what she did to them -- an impossibility, as they can no longer communicate absolution.
Dick Weinhold, the Christian Coalition's Texas state chairman, told me that while he rejoices in Tucker becoming a Christian, she should be executed. The case, Weinhold comments, "is about compassion and consequences. I understand how some would come down on the side of compassion. I come down on the side of consequences."
Tucker's acceptance of her fate is a tribute to her faith: "There are some days I can see the Lord working that miracle (commutation), and then there are some days I can see him coming down and escorting me home... So, I try to feel like, 'OK, Lord. Whatever. It's up to you.'"
In a way, her death would be the final expiation. Of her, one could sincerely say, rest in peace. Still, for this awful crime, justice requires the ultimate penalty of the penitent as much the unrepentant.
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