Albion Monitor /Commentary

No Redemption in Execution of Karla Faye Tucker

by Alexander Cockburn

All observers were keen to stress the smile sealed forever on Karla Faye Tucker's face, with only what the Associated Press man described as a gurgle to mark her terminal moment
I remember a vivid, terrible description of a guillotining in France early in this century, where the violent pace of the whole episode -- maybe a minute from the moment the prisoner was led out into the public highway where the blade awaited to the moment head, body and basket were driven away -- mirrored the essential barbarity of the whole process of capital punishment.

Watching the news programs last Tuesday, as Karla Faye Tucker was put to death in Huntsville, Texas, I hadn't quite realized how sedately bureaucratized the whole process had become in the years since the death penalty was restored here.

The tone of the news anchors was deferentially solemn, respectful of the pain of one and all, from Gov. George W. Bush to the "families of the victims" to sympathizers of Karla Faye Tucker like Jerry Falwell. The prosecutor who successfully argued for the death penalty similarly spoke of his own distress but also glowingly of the Texas penal system and of the application of justice in the United States as second to none in the world for compassion and humane values.

Dr. Guillotin, a child of the 18th century enlightenment, sold his contraption to the French Assembly by arguing decapitation should no longer be reserved for aristocrats and that the swift certainty of his invention answered the demands of both democracy and productivity. There was a lively debate amid the Jacobin terror as to whether death by guillotine was instantaneous. In support of the negative side the case of Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat to death in his bath, was invoked. It was said that Corday "blushed with indignation when the executioner, holding up the head to public gaze, struck it with his fist."

No such excesses marred the execution "process" in the "facility" at Huntsville. All observers were keen to stress the smile sealed forever on Karla Faye Tucker's face, with only what the Associated Press man described as a gurgle to mark her terminal moment. Like a friendly cat under the dining room table, the phrase "lethal injection" purred its polite way through the reports, as a process almost ennobling in its merciful decorum.

Karla Faye's redemption was seen by her supporters as a process that would hopefully advertise the cruel folly of the death penalty. But more powerfully at work was a profound Calvinism, of the sort that inspired the famous tale of the wild lad in Switzerland, found guilty of a capital crime, instructed in the Bible, admitted into the Christian faith, taught the notions of human conscience and then, and only then, put to death. And so Tucker was helped into the next world by Gov. George W. Bush, declaring that he would leave the decisions of the hands of a higher power, a piece of buck-passing sanctimony I trust the voters will remember, should he ever seek higher office beyond the confines of Texas.

So Bush Jr. proved he was man enough to kill a woman. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson asserted they believed in redemption, called for clemency but passed up the opportunity to go to Texas and stand outside the walls of Karla Faye's prison for a final demonstration.

But at least they spoke up, which is more than did the women's groups unavailable to answer Camille Paglia's awful piece of off-hand glibness, that she favored Tucker's execution on the grounds that she, Paglia, is an "equal-opportunity feminist"? Where were Gloria Steinem, Pat Ireland, Ellie Smeal and Fay Waddleton to argue that here was a case where a women's issue was a universal issue and that Karla Faye's execution displayed the barbarity of the death penalty for men and women both? If these women spoke up, I could find no trace of their appeals. Only Bianca Jagger spoke forcefully, on behalf of Amnesty International.

And what of President Bill Clinton, whom these women have covered for so many times? He most certainly helped to stick the poison needles into Karla Faye's veins. At moments of political peril, he's not hesitated to push men like Ricky Rector into the execution chamber to give himself a boost among the Hang 'Em crowd. He signed the 1996 Anti-Terrorism bill, which makes it almost impossible for people on Death Row to use the federal courts in their appeals. And the two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court he's appointed -- Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- raised no obstruction to Karla Faye's execution.

So praise Karla Faye Tucker and Larry King, who gave Middle America a chance to hear eloquent arguments against the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty, which has seen 90 percent of federal death penalty cases in the Clinton era filed against black and Hispanics. Don't praise the press, now so cowed that it felt necessary to tie the label "Pick-ax Murderer" to Tucker's toe as they trundled her corpse off to the morgue.

Let's stop being so polite, so respectful about these execution rituals. What sort of people are these "families of the victims" who wait 14 years to see, ringside, someone officially killed in compensation for their own loss? Better find peace in forgiveness and compassion than in these ghoulish urges to be in the front row for a hanging.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor February 11, 1998 (

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