On February 3, 1998, Karla Faye Tucker entered the death chamber at the Mountain View Unit of the Texas State prison system at Gatesville. She seemed as ready as anyone could possibly be to meet her maker.
The 38-year-old convicted murderer smiled and bid farewell to those who had gathered to witness her execution by lethal injection. The occasion marked the first time a female inmate was being put to death in Texas since the Civil War.
Tucker expressed love to her assembled friends and family, and apologized to those who were there to represent her victims, saying, “I hope God will give you peace with this.”
Finally, Tucker, who had famously converted to Christianity behind bars, said, “I’m going to be face to face with Jesus now. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.”
With that, Death Row inmate #777 eased back, praised Jesus one more time, and quietly accepted her fate.
Karla Faye Tucker’s journey to those last moments began in Houston, where she was born in 1959. She grew up in a violent, chaotic household and, by 12, took to acting out through drugs and sex.
At 14, she quit school to hit the road with her mother Carolyn Tucker, a celebrated rock band “groupie” who partied and traveled with, among others, the Eagles and the Allman Brothers.
Following her own stint as a groupie, Karla discovered biker culture, carousing in her early twenties with outlaw motorcycle gangs.
Blitzed out during a weekend-long drug-taking session on June 13, 1983, Tucker and her “old man,” Danny Garrett, snuck over to the home of their associate Jerry Dean, hoping to steal one of Dean’s motorcycles.
They couple let themselves into the apartment with a set of spare keys and, upon discovering Dean was home, unleashed hell on their victim.
While Tucker held Dean down, Garrett smashed the back of Dean’s head repeatedly with a hammer. Garrett then left to carry motorcycle parts out of the home. Tucker could not stand the gurgles and death rattles coming out of Dean, so she savaged him with a nearby pickaxe.
After Dean finally died, Tucker noticed a women cowering in a corner under bed covers. Her name was Deborah Thornton. She’d met Jerry Dean just that afternoon and gone home with him. Tucker attacked Deborah with the pickaxe, hitting her multiple times before finally piercing Thornton’s heart.
Tucker would later testify that, each time the pickaxe connected with her victims’ bodies, she experienced intense orgasms.
A friend of Dean’s discovered the victim’s bodies the next day. Police arrested Tucker and Danny Garrett shortly thereafter.
In September 1983, Tucker pleaded not guilty. After a trial in 1984, the court found her guilty of double murder and sentenced her to death.
Once in jail, Tucker reported that she started reading the Bible and said, “Before I knew it, I was in the middle of my cell floor on my knees. I was just asking God to forgive me.”
From that moment on, Karla Faye Tucker is said to have become a model prisoner. She reportedly worked tirelessly with other inmates. She taught many how to read, counseled others in regard to getting clean and sober, and actively assisted convicts in finding work and other opportunities to help them stay out of trouble after they were released. In 1995, Tucker married her prison minister, Reverend Dana Lane Brown.
Talk arose about her death sentence being commuted to life in prison. She knew she had to pay for her crimes, but she wanted to stay alive to to continue to help other women who had made similar mistakes to the ones she had. Tucker’s case even attracted international support.
The United Nations, the World Council of Churches, Pope John Paul II, and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi all publicly stated that Tucker had been “reformed” and called for her to be spared execution.
Prominent political figures of the American right — a group not typically known to come out against capital punishment — also campaigned on her behalf. Among theme were Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.
Even Ronald Carson, the brother of Tucker’s victim Debbie Thornton, asked the state of Texas to commute Tucker’s sentence.
Regardless, just minutes before her scheduled lethal injection, Texas Governor George W. Bush turned down an eleventh-hour appeal filed by Tucker’s attorneys, effectively making sure she would be put to death. Prior to his being elected president in 2000, Governor Bush oversaw the execution of 131 prisoners in Texas total.
Fred Allen, a Texas prison official who managed more than 125 executions in the Lone Star State, said he suffered a complete breakdown and change of heart after witnessing Karla Faye Tucker die under his command.
Allen walked off the job and abandoned his pension. Later, in the 2011 film Into the Abyss, he he told documentary maker Werner Herzog, “I was pro capital punishment. After Karla Faye and after all this … 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.”
Since Karla Faye Tucker’s execution, 14 women have been officially put to death by the government in the United States. Five of them died in Texas.
Main photos: Karla Faye Tucker, 1984 [Texas State Department of Corrections]