(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The state of Texas, known for Mesquite rodeo, male chivalry and its frequent use of capital punishment, is scheduled to execute Karla Faye Tucker on Feb. 3. Texas put to death 37 inmates in 1997, half of the entire country’s death penalty victims. So why is Tucker’s case significant? Because she’s a she.
And a woman has not been executed in Texas in this century. According to a New York Times article by Sam Verhovek (Jan. 1), “Chipita Rodriguez was put to death for murdering a horse trader” in 1863. Only one woman has been executed since capital punishment was re-instituted in America in 1976.
What did the 38-year-old Tucker do 14 years ago to deserve such a fate? Verhovek writes: “Strung out with her boyfriend on a variety of drugs, she repeatedly assaulted [two] sleeping victims [Jeffrey Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton] with the murder weapon, left it embedded in Ms. Thornton’s chest and boasted, just after the killings, that she had experienced a surge of sexual pleasure every time she swung the three-foot pickax.”
Yet, among others, Pat Robertson — television evangelist, supporter of the death penalty and Ralph Reed mentor — has come out as one of Tucker’s ardent supporters, requesting that Republican Gov. George Bush, Jr., commute her death sentence, something the 18-member Board of Pardons and Paroles has not recommended in more than 10 years, Verhovek notes.
Meanwhile, in the face of this hypocrisy, the rest of the country is bending over backward to put to death two men who should not die. In Denver, the closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial of Terry Nichols is still in progress, while the trial of former Eliot House resident Theodore J. Kaczynski begins soon in Sacramento.
The death penalty can be argued against on many grounds. It allows 12 fallible people to collectively assume the role of God, deciding who shall live and who shall not; it is irreversible, denying innocent victims the chance to be exonerated; it is impartially practiced in the United States — many more black criminals are executed in this country than white criminals.
But reason rarely prevails when personal grief is at stake. Even in liberal Massachusetts, prompted by the parents of a 10-year-old victim in the wake of several child murders, the Legislature voted 81-79 to reinstate the death penalty for the first time since 1947.
Enter Nichols and Kaczynski. Nichols was acquitted last week of both first- and second-degree murder and convicted of eight counts of the same charge ultimately leveled against au pair Louise Woodward: involuntary manslaughter. Woodward was sentenced to time already served. Nichols could have faced the death penalty. Why? Because myopic America wants revenge at any cost for Oklahoma’s dead. Likewise, the country wants to see the pernicious Unabomber die so badly that Janet Reno rejected an insanity plea last week in order to preserve the possibility of imposing the death penalty.
Perhaps the best argument against the death penalty — insofar as it is the most palatable — is that human beings cannot impose it with consistency or rationality. If retribution must be precise, you may forfeit your own life when you take someone else’s. But we have no way of imposing such a system equitably or sensibly. We should follow similar reasoning as that expounded by the creators of American government and impose a single check and balance on ourselves: categorical proscription of the death penalty.
In a state that utilizes death sentences less often than the Patriots reach the Superbowl, Karla Faye Tucker should die. She should be strapped to the lethal injection gurney just like her 37 compatriots were last year and she should be pumped full of enough toxins to asphyxiate and kill her. The crime of which Terry Nichols was convicted does not warrant the final punishment of death. If Ted Kaczynski is insane, life imprisonment without parole and medical help are appropriate, not execution.
As with murder, reason rarely enters the picture when weighing the use of the death penalty; it is understandably often overshadowed by emotion. These three cases show at least this much. Unfortunately, the result of capital punishment and our inability to impose it consistently or rationally is that people die who should not, which is the same crime we are trying to avenge in the first place.
Daniel M. Suleiman’s column originally appeared in Monday’s edition of the Harvard Crimson.