The Justice of Karla Faye Tucker's Execution

My sister in Christ was executed by the State of Texas Tuesday night, and it was a morally appropriate event ó if nonetheless sad. The state, its governor, and the United States Supreme Court did the right thing to refuse her appeals of the death sentence handed down for the crime she committed in June 1983.

Karla Faye Tucker was running with a rough biker crowd fifteen years ago. After a binge of alcohol and speed, she and her live-in boyfriend broke into the apartment of 26-year-old Jerry Lynn Dean to steal motorcycle parts.

Finding Dean naked in his bed, Garrett bludgeoned him with a hammer. When the beating stopped and the dying man began making gurgling sounds, Ms. Tucker grabbed a pickax and began swinging. An autopsy showed Dean had been hit 28 times. In a tape-recorded conversation with friends that was played at her trial, she bragged about the sexual thrill she got from the attack.

Before the night of mayhem ended, a woman in the apartment was also killed with the three-foot-long pickax. Garrett left its iron crossbar buried in her chest.

At her trial, Ms. Tuckerís attorneys called no defense witnesses. They acknowledged in closing arguments that she was guilty. A jury convicted her. And she was sentenced to death.

Ms. Tucker became a Christian while in prison and appears to have been transformed in personality and behavior by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of the dramatic changes in her, Pope John Paul II, Pat Robertson, at least one prosecutor in her case, and even a few relatives of the murder victims had argued for the commutation of her death sentence to life in prison without parole.

But there is a difference in Christian theology between guilt and consequences in human behavior. There is also a distinction between retribution and reformation in Christian ethics. Let me try to make these ethically important claims clear.

Guilt has to do with oneís culpability for an action, but the tangible consequences of an action are not directly linked to guilt. For example, a rapist is certainly guilty of violating another human being but may suffer neither pangs of conscience nor criminal penalties. On the other hand, his victim may suffer the outrage of venereal disease or pregnancy from the rape, but she incurs no moral guilt.

Ms. Tucker, in a long letter sent to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, admitted her guilt. "It obviously was very, very horrible," she wrote, "and I do take full responsibility for what happened." Because I believe in the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, I affirm that her moral guilt was pardoned when she became a Christian. But spiritual release from guilt does not entail the nullification of consequences.

Surely there is no Christian theologian who would argue that a converted thief should get to keep whatever he stole or that a forgiven liar should be spared the embarrassment of telling the truth. Suffering the temporal consequences of oneís deeds without complaint does not atone for them, but it often does serve as a sign of genuine remorse.

To Ms. Tuckerís credit, she did not blame others with injustice for her sentence or for their role in carrying it out. In her letter, she wrote: "If you decide you must carry out this execution, do it based solely on the brutality and heinousness of my crime. But please donít do it based on me being a future threat to society." Indeed, a biblical ethic of civic accountability holds that the punishment of crime is primarily a communityís just retaliation against evil deeds rather than a means to rehabilitation.

In the early lines of the Bible, this principle is laid down: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). This principle of justice which holds that a murderer forfeits his right to life is upheld in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

Confused moralists may argue that the state has no right to "murder murderers." The Bible is much more ethically sophisticated. Murder is the unjustified and deliberate taking of a human life and is never confused in Scripture with the deliberate but justified act of execution. "Thou shalt not kill" in the King James Version is literally and correctly "Thou shalt not commit murder." And the biblical penalty for breaking the Sixth Commandment was execution. To say it another way, all murder is killing but not all killing is murder.

Again to her credit, I did not read any vitriolic denunciations of the State of Texas and the courts from Ms. Tucker. Those came from lawyers in front of TV cameras. The state acted responsibly and ethically.

Capital punishment should not be meted out by gender, race, or religion. No more than being female should have exempted Ms. Tucker from the consequences of her past should being a Christian or Jew or Buddhist have done so. Male inmates who have experienced spiritual conversions on Texasí death row have not been able to get the sympathy generated by this case.

Gov. Bush and the courts handled an emotionally supercharged situation with equity under the law. Somehow, I suspect Karla Faye Tucker understands that better than some who used her case to attack Texas and the legal system so viciously.

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