Following the Rules

We waited, shivering in the cold, for what seemed an endless half-hour. We stood outside the double rows of ten-foot chain-link fence, topped by four-strand electrified barbed wire and endlessly looped concertina, slanted inward to make it more difficult to climb. The wire pointed toward the low-slung red-brick buildings within the fence: death row, Mountainview.

The Mountainview Unit was originally built to house wayward boys in trouble with the law. The day of my visit, across the road from me, inmates strolled in twos or threes while female guards in unflattering, masculine-tailored uniforms strode with more purpose. Most of the captives and their keepers sported close-cropped, masculine hairdos, and sometimes from a distance, the only way you could be certain they were women was knowing that this is a women's prison.

As we waited, there was no indication from the tower guard, 30 feet above us, of what we were supposed to do, or where we should go, or when he would open more locked gates. We waited silently, anxious to get inside and talk to pickax murderess Karla Faye Tucker, the most notorious of the four women on Texas' death row. Finally, the tower guard's phone rang, and shortly after, we heard the low buzz of the gates opening. The guard told us to walk ahead to the building directly in front of us. The heavy gate slammed shut behind us.

nside the visitor's center we were met by another guard who led us into a plain meeting room, surrounded by half-walls topped with glass. More linoleum floor, gray metal folding tables and chairs, barred and meshed windows, some ashtrays. Outside the room were two soft-drink machines. Karla's not quite ready for visitors, the guard told us. More waiting.

I was thinking about the woman about to sit right here in the room with us, unprotected by visitor's plexiglass or thick prison mesh. Tucker had been unavailable for public interviews, but she was making an exception to see state Senator John Whitmire, whom I was accompanying. Prison rules also normally forbid contact visits, but under the senator's authority the rules were temporarily set aside. I was aware, of course, that the prisoner would be strip-searched before she was returned to the small house she shares with three other women waiting to die.

If her sentence is indeed finally carried out, Tucker will be the first woman executed in Texas this century, the first ever to die by lethal injection. Since the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting the reinstatement of the death penalty, across the country only one woman has been put to death.

Houstonians haven't forgotten the sensational nature of Tucker's crime and subsequent trial. As the headlines told it, Karla Fay was a young, beautiful, drug-crazed and trickturning rock-and-roll freak, who at 13 had partied with such famous rockers as the Allman Brothers and Dr. Hook's band. But a decade later, her life in the fast lane had come to a grisly climax. According to trial testimony and her own admission, Tucker had murdered, gleefully and with a pickax, her enemy Jerry Lynn Dean, as well as Debra Thornton, his unlucky one-night stand sleeping beside him.

At the 1984 trial Tucker's accomplice, George Liebrant (himself charged only with burglarizing Dean's apartment), described the bloody scene where Thornton was found, the ax driven into her chest. "Karla was standing over a body on the floor. She had a pickax buried in a body covered with a sheet. She was pulling on the ax, wiggling it and jerking it," said Liebrant. "She finally got it out and held it over her head. She turned, looked at me and smiled and [did it again]."

A month later, Tucker and her boyfriend Danny Garrett were turned into the police by their siblings, Kari Tucker and Douglas Garrett. Both had heard Garrett and Tucker bragging about the murders and giggling at the news reports, saying they were famous. The younger Garrett said Karla expressed sexual gratification at every swing of the ax: "Doug, I came at every stroke." On April 19, 1984, Karla was found guilty of the capital murder of Jerry Lynn Dean.

At the sentencing phase of her trial, Tucker's apparent reformation had already begun. She told the court that if someone were to do the same thing to her -- hack her to death with a pickax -- it wouldn't be justice enough. She was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

Karla Faye Tucker has now been on Death Row for more than nine years, and has received three stays of execution. The most recent was three weeks ago, November 19. In the intervening years, officials, police and even some relatives of Tucker's victims have said she has changed her life, and have mounted a letter campaign appealing to the state to spare her life. Tucker's supporters insist that she has mended her ways, and adopted sincere Christianity.

In appealing her conviction, Tucker's lawyer has argued that when she killed Thornton and Dean, her prolonged use of drugs had rendered her "emotionally retarded." Her lawyer says the trial jury was not permitted to know that on the night of the murders, Tucker was "blasted out of her brain." Tucker herself testified that she had been using drugs since she was eight, had shot up heroin at the age of ten and from that age until her arrest, had not been drug free for more than two weeks at a time. She did it all: pills, speed, cocaine, downers, and skinpopping just because she "liked the feel of it."

On the other hand, skeptics deride what they see as Tucker's new-found Christian pretenses, insisting she should get to feel the needle again.

At most, Tucker's lawyer hopes for a new trial; at least, he wants her death sentence commuted to life in prison. The Criminal Court of Appeal has yet to rule on his request but has stayed all three of Tucker's scheduled death dates, including the most recent. But when we met in early November, Tucker was still scheduled to be executed, on November 19.

"Technically, it will be my third date, one day after my birthday," Karla says, finally joining us. She knows Whitmire from her trial, at which he had represented her accomplice George Liebrant. "I'll be 34 November 18th."

A long-legged and tough-looking male guard, right out of Cool Hand Luke, had escorted the petite, black-eyed, and frankly sweet-looking woman from her quarters. He positions himself close to the door. Tucker's long and shiny dark hair is pulled slightly away from her face, falling past her shoulders. She is girlish, bubbly; she seems more like 15 than 33. Occasionally, she stops to suck on a half-eaten candy cane.

As she talks, she uses her hands a lot. Attractively made up and clad in neat prison whites, she's also wearing, surprisingly, bright cobalt blue inch-and-a-half heels. She says she bought them at the inmate's commissary.

I ask if she thinks about the murders. "I don't really think about it too much. I mean, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it. It's kind of a dream, you know, kind of not," she says. "There's so many other things to think about right now, like my church and trying to say some things kids need to hear. So. I'm working on that."

Asked how she feels about her last ten years, Tucker smiles. "It's been better for me, because I was taken out of an environment where drugs and violence and everything was a norm, and put in here and given a chance to really kind of stop and realize what's right and good. It's been great for me.

"When you get free of drugs and everything else, then you realize the police aren't your enemy, the judges aren't your enemies, but that everybody needs to follow rules and stuff like that."

About four months after being locked up, Tucker says she accepted Christ into her life. "Because of him, it's been better for me." Many of the members of the nearby church group Tucker belongs to have written letters to officials and made public statements on her behalf.

If Tucker could wish her life over again, what kind of life would she wish for? "The kind of life I have now." That response is a little surprising, coming from a woman who has been locked in the same small room, with the same woman roommate, for ten years. "Yes, definitely. The love, the peace, the caring. I really wasn't a very caring person. I was pretty selfish and angry. We're a family over there, actually, just a small family.

"You know, God really pours his grace out over there because we're around each other 24 hours a day. 365 days a year we're closed in together. Pam and I have been closed in together like that for nine or ten years. When you're around somebody 24 hours a day, God has to pour his grace out, otherwise you'd go crazy -- all your little differences and idiosyncracies."

Tucker says that in order to spread her message to young and troubled kids, she wants very much to make a video. Her church is trying to get permission, and to raise funds for the production. "My message is not "Karla shouldn't die." My message is, "You're accountable for what you do." You have to think about the other people involved and get out of that selfish attitude.

"The drugs made me do what I did when I was out there. When you fill your mind with altering substances, you lose all your inhibitions. All of a sudden, you don't care about this [pointing at herself] or them. The more drugs you put in, the less inhibitions you have -- like the night of my crime. And sex -- people love sex at their age. But they don't have to do it. Just hitting them on sex -- that's it's crazy. Let them know, from my perspective, what I think would have kept me out of here."

We stay with Tucker for more than hour, talking about her everyday prison life. She's taking college courses, has taught herself sign language, and works all day, making little toy dolls. Listening to her, it's hard to doubt her genuineness. It's easy to become swept up in the sympathy her supporters feel. Even her watchful guard seems to agree Karla will never be executed. "No, we don't expect it to happen." Almost affectionately, he adds: "We think she'll be here a long time."

As we wind up, Tucker says she is not concerned about whether she lives a just a few more weeks or for the rest of her life, locked up on Death Row. "I've learned a lot and grown a lot and changed a lot. If the execution happens, then kids will get my message through my dying. Seeing that happen may have even more of an impact on them."

s she leaves, we hug.

--Leah Karotkin


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