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Karla Faye Tucker
Born November 18, 1959
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Died February 3, 1998 (aged 38)
Huntsville, Texas, U.S.
Charge(s) Murder
Penalty Death sentence
Status Executed
Spouse Dana Lane Brown

Karla Faye Tucker (November 18, 1959 – February 3, 1998) was convicted of murder in Texas in 1984 and put to death in 1998. She was the first woman to be executed in the United States since 1984, and the first in Texas since 1863. Because of her gender and widely-publicized conversion to Christianity, she inspired an unusually large national and international movement advocating the commutation of her sentence to life imprisonment, a movement which included a few foreign government officials.


Early life

Karla Tucker was born and raised in Houston, Texas, the youngest of three sisters. Her father Larry was a longshoreman on the Gulf of Mexico. The marriage was very troubled, and Tucker started smoking with her sisters when she was eight years old. At the age of ten, her parents divorced, and during the divorce proceedings, she learned that she had been the result of an extramarital affair. By age 12, she had turned to drugs and sex. When she was 14, she dropped out of school and followed her mother Carolyn, a rock groupie, into prostitution and began traveling with the Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, and the Eagles. At age 16, she briefly married a mechanic named Stephen Griffith. In her early 20s, she began hanging out with bikers, and met a woman named Shawn Dean and her husband Jerry Lynn Dean, who introduced her to a man named Danny Garrett in 1981.[1][2]

Shawn Dean had broken up with her husband, Jerry Lynn Dean, who had given her a "busted nose and lip."

After having spent the weekend doing drugs with her boyfriend, Danny Garrett and their friends, Tucker and Garrett entered Jerry Dean's home around 3:00 am, intending to steal Dean's motorcycle. James Leibrant, a friend, went with them to Dean's apartment complex. Leibrant reported that he went looking for Dean's El Camino while Tucker and Garrett entered the apartment with a set of keys that Tucker claimed Shawn Dean had lost and Tucker had found.

During the burglary, Tucker and Garrett entered Dean's bedroom, where Tucker sat on him. In an effort to protect himself, Dean grabbed Tucker above the elbows, whereupon Garrett intervened. Garrett struck Dean numerous times in the back of the head with a hammer he found on the floor. (Dean kept his work tools in his bedroom.) After hitting Dean, Garrett left the room to carry motorcycle parts out of the apartment. Tucker remained in the bedroom.

The blows Garrett had dealt Dean caused his head to become unhinged from his neck and his breathing passages to fill with fluid. He began making a "gurgling" sound characteristic of this type of injury. Tucker wanted to "stop him from making that noise" and attacked him with a pickax. Garrett then reentered the room and dealt Dean a final blow in the chest.

Garrett left the bedroom again so as to continue loading Dean's motorcycle parts into his Ranchero. Tucker was once again left in the room and only then noticed a woman who had hidden under the bedcovers against the wall. The woman, Deborah Thornton, had met Dean at a party earlier that afternoon. Upon discovering Thornton, Tucker grazed her shoulder with the pickax. Thornton and Tucker began to struggle, but Garrett returned and separated them. He proceeded to hit Thornton repeatedly with the pickax and then embedded the axe in her heart.

The next morning, a coworker of Dean's who had been waiting for a ride entered the apartment and discovered the victims' bodies. Investigation led to the arrests of Tucker and Garrett.[3]

Trial and conviction

In September 1983, Tucker and Garrett were indicted and tried separately for the murders. Tucker entered a plea of not guilty and was jailed awaiting trial. She took a Bible from the prison ministry program and read it in her cell. She later recalled, "I didn't know what I was reading and before I knew it, I was just — I was in the middle of my floor on my knees and I was just asking God to forgive me."[4]

Though the death penalty was hardly ever sought for female defendants, Garrett and Tucker were both sentenced to death in late 1984. (Garrett died in prison of liver disease in 1993.) She shared her Death Row cell at the Gatesville Unit with her friend Pam Perillo, whose own sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. Tucker became a Christian in 1985.

Between 1984 and 1992, requests for a retrial and appeals were denied, but on June 22, Tucker requested that her life be spared on the basis that she was under the influence of drugs at the time of the murder and was now a reformed person. Her plea drew support from abroad and also from some leaders of American conservatism. Among those who appealed to the State of Texas on her behalf were Waly Bacre Ndiaye, the United Nations commissioner on summary and arbitrary executions; the World Council of Churches; Pope John Paul II; Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi; the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; televangelist Pat Robertson; and Ron Carlson, the brother of Tucker's murder victim Debbie Thornton. The warden of Texas' Huntsville prison testified that she was a model prisoner and that, after 14 years on death row, she likely had been reformed. The board turned her down on January 28, 1998.

In the year following her execution, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson questioned Governor George W. Bush about how the Board of Pardons and Parole had arrived at the determination on her clemency plea. Carlson alleged that Bush, alluding to a televised interview which Karla Faye Tucker had given to talk show host Larry King, smirked and spoke mockingly about her.[5]


On February 2, 1998, state authorities took Tucker from the unit in Gatesville and flew her to the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, where she was executed by lethal injection the next day, and pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m.[6] She selected five people to watch her die, including Thornton's husband Richard and his two stepchildren, who supported the death penalty, and Thornton's brother Ronald Carlson, who opposed the execution and had been converted by her faith after visiting Tucker on death row. Her last words were:

Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you — the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family — that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this. Baby, I love you. Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.

She is buried at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston.

International reactions

Tucker gained international attention because she would be the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War and the first in the United States since 1984. Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro noted in a public speech that capital punishment supporters outside a Texas prison had cheered when Tucker was executed. "And we are on the threshold of 2,000 years of Christ!" he exclaimed. In England, Richard Harries of the Diocese of Oxford reported that a Gospel singer's rendition of "Amazing Grace" was shouted down by cries of "Kill the bitch!" from the pro-death penalty crowd that gathered outside of the prison.



  • The Tomorrowpeople (1999). "America's Deathrow Sweetheart" (Gibson/Powerchurch) on the album Marijuana Beach [Olivia Records]
  • Indigo Girls (1999). "Faye Tucker" (Ray) on the album Come on Now Social [Epic Records]
  • Mary Gauthier (2001). "Karla Faye" (Mary Gauthier/Crit Harmon) on the album Drag Queens & Limousines [Munich Records BV]
  • David Knopfler (2002). "Karla Faye" (David Knopfler) on the album Wishbones [Paris Records/Edel GmbH/Koch Entertainment]

Theatrical plays, films, and television

  • MacNeil, R. (2005) Karla. Produced by Long Wharf Theatre, Hartford, CT.
  • KARLA (2005) by Steve Earle opened October 23, 2005 at 45 Below Theatre in NYC.
  • Crossed Over (2002), Film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Diane Keaton.
  • Karla Faye Tucker: Forevermore (2004), Film directed by Helen Gibson.
  • A Question of Mercy: The Karla Faye Tucker Story (1998), TV Documentary directed by Rob Feldman.
  • Dead Woman Walking: The Karla Faye Tucker Story (1999), American Justice TV Episode Bill Kurtis/Towers Productions


  1. ^ Karla Faye Tucker: Texas' Controversial Murdress, "Chapter 2: Early Days, Dark Days" from Crime Library
  2. ^ Death in Texas from the New York Review of Books.
  3. ^ Lowry, Beverly. "Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir." New York: 1992
  4. ^ "Facing death with Chapter 3
  5. ^ Carlson, Talk, September 1999, p. 106
  6. ^ CNN, Karla Faye Tucker's last hours?


  • Carlson, T. (1999). Devil May Care, Talk Magazine, September 1999, p. 106.
  • Clark, T. (2000). Texas procedures on death penalty reprieves. CNN Law Center. June 22, 2000.
  • King, L. (1998). Karla Faye Tucker: Live from Death Row. CNN Transcript # 98011400V22.
  • Strom, L. (2000). Karla Faye Tucker set free: life and faith on death row. New York, NY. Random House: Shaw Books.

External links

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