Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Karla Faye Tucker: Texas' Controversial Murderess

Legal Tactics, Back and Forth

Tucker and Garrett were indicted for the murders of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton in September, 1983. The alleged killers were tried separately. Of Karla Faye's trial, the state vowed to its full extent despite her gender, despite the fact that the death penalty was normally not sought for female defendants.

CourtTV Online records, "(Karla Faye) entered a plea of not guilty and was tried before a jury in the 180th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas, Judge Patricia Lykos, presiding. Voir dire (jury selection) commenced on March 2, 1984, and concluded on April 9. Testimony began on April 11 and concluded on April 18. Final arguments were heard on April 19, 1984. A verdict of guilty of the offense of capital murder was returned the same day."

Garrett was found guilty, also, in a subsequent court trial. Both he and his accomplice/girlfriend were sentenced to death before the end of the year. It had been a set of speedy trials, both party's defense teams unable to overcome the profusion of witnesses against their clients and the sickening violence of the crimes.

Garrett would die in prison not long after his conviction, of liver disease. But, Karla Faye Tucker would endure a waiting game of appeal after appeal directed to the state penal directors, to the Supreme Court and eventually to the Governor of Texas. All bodies would refuse her requests and George W. Bush, the governor in whose hands clemency rested, would reject her. The prisoner would spend, in all, 14 years in prison only to walk the last mile she had tried so long to avoid. She would be executed February 3, 1998.

After her sentence, Karla Faye was removed from Houston to death row at Mountain View Prison in Gatesville, Texas. From the moment of her incarceration until the day she died, her world would consist of her cell, which she shared with fellow inmate Pam Perillo, and the cavernous halls of the single death row building in the Mountain View compound. Besides a few friendly guards, her only neighbors would be less than ten other women, like Perillo, slated for the same fate as she: a dose of lethal injection. Condemned convicts were not allowed to mix with the prison's general population; the outside world was visible only through the criss-cross bars of her cell. Its only ingress was the wind and the rain that sometimes inadvertently blew in through the windowsill.

Her hopes for release were unrealistic, and she knew it; she had sealed her future with multiple swipes of a pickaxe on two human beings. But, she [did] fight to escape her death sentence, her reasoning being that the murder she committed had not been premeditated, premeditation being a requisite for capital punishment in Texas. When interviewed by chat-host Larry King two weeks before her death, she suggested that bad advice from her lawyers had nudged her into her no-hope predicament.

"I did not plead guilty at the beginning of my trial," she divulged, "but only because my attorneys had said not to. If I had that to do again, I would. "Had she pleaded guilty at the outset, the messy revelations of the trial would have been avoided, all the bad press and past digging, and she may have, she believed, drawn a maximum life sentence term.

After all, she had already confessed before the trial began. As she told King, "(Up to) that point, I had already admitted what I did...already told the truth about everything."

Entrance to Mountain View (Ron Kuntz)
Entrance to Mountain View
(Ron Kuntz)


Early attempts in 1984 by Karla Faye's lawyers for a retrial were denied by Judge Lykos. Further remonstrations to the Court of Criminal Appeals to overrule their client's conviction and sentence fell on equally deaf ears in 1987 and 1988. On June 25, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down her motion for appeal.

In the face of these disappointments, Karla Faye and her representing legal team utilized every lawful channel open to them to rescue her. The 1990s were to be her battleground, a time when the nation was learning to be more aware of the rights of Man and the tonsils of the media were sprayed heavily with the mouthwash of "political correctness". Reform groups in every state that practiced capital punishment upraised religious and governmental spokespersons from among their cities to preach the cruelties and horrors of the electric chair, the gas chamber and the needle.

Karla Faye and her plight became controversial. Not only did factions question her legal cause to die (they claimed that the court never proved premeditation), but while she waited to die, Karla Faye Tucker had found religion. Even her doubters admitted that her attitude had vastly changed from the rebellious thing she had been when first hauled into court. As her battle for life waged on, two sides of the story emerged: While the one side quipped that anyone on death row would pose religiously to save their neck, the other answered that that surface kind of faith could not endure above bitterness, but that, in truth, she continued to spiritually grow.

But Texas, a state known for its firm-ground stand on capital punishment, didn't waver even though as its antagonists reminded the state it hadnt executed a woman since the Civil War. According to CourtTV Online, "Applicant (Tucker) repeatedly sought an evidentiary hearing in the trial court to address the issues raised (in her earlier petitions)...arguing that the affidavits submitted by trial counsel were wholly insufficient." In February 1992, Judge Lykos rejected the request for a new hearing. Rather, she set a tentative date (June30) for execution.

A month later, the defense (a pair of new lawyers) won a victory to stay the execution through the Court of Appeals to give them more time to protest the latest rulings. "On June 22," CourtTV resumes, " the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals...ordered that an evidentiary hearing be conducted 'at which time the applicant will have an opportunity to prove allegations ten through twelve'...of the amended petition. (The allegations cited that Jimmy Leibrant, who had been with Garrett and Tucker the night of the murder, and who walked away free, had committed perjury on the stand.) Although the order directed Judge Lykos to hold an evidentiary hearing only on the perjury claims, three judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals were of the view that an evidentiary hearing should also be conducted on the ineffective assistance of counsel claims...

"On July 6 and 7, 1992, the partial evidentiary hearing was held before Judge Lykos (who) made it clear that the hearing was limited solely to the evidentiary matters relating to James Leibrant. On November 19, 1992, (the judge) filed her 'Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Order,' which was submitted to the Court of Appeals. (This report) addressed all of the claims contained in Applicant's pleadings, even though a hearing was held only on the claims relating to James Leibrant."

In the meantime, even though a response from the appellate court had not yet been returned, Judge Lykos again ordered an execution date for Karla Faye Tucker. Members of the appellate court, in turn, crushed the order and directed Lykos and the Department of Corrections to honor the stay of execution in effect until they had made their decision on the findings of the evidentiary hearing.

It took many months for an answer to come from the Court of Criminal Appeals, but when it did it was bad news for the supplicant: They would not alter the initial verdict, after all. Simultaneously, they lifted her stay of execution.

Judge Lykos' handling of the evidentiary hearing, coupled with her drive to schedule a date for execution, riled those in the nation who were campaigning hot against capital punishment to begin with. With the clock winding down, Karla Faye's lawyers utilized the little that was left them for reprieve, doubtlessly hoping that the clamor of public sentiment might aid their cause to commute her sentence to life. They appealed once again to the Texas appellates and the district courts in Houston to "challenge the constitutionality of the state's clemency procedure," says CourtTV Online. "In the 155-page court document, Tucker's lawyers repeatedly stressed that (she) was fully rehabilitated (and) posed no future threat to society." Attached to this petition were sizeable documentia supporting the premise that, during the years of her incarceration, she had become a socially safe and faith-conscious citizen.

Included in the package were testimonies of various professionals and laypersons who had encountered Karla Faye throughout the trial and imprisonment process; these people offered their opinions on her readjustment to normalcy, her religious conversion and her present character. Witnesses on her behalf included, among others, a psychiatrist, a drug-abuse expert, a deputy sheriff and a prison chaplain. Some clinicians seriously doubted that she really knew what she was doing the night of the murder because of the drugs she had taken; others claimed that her formative years led her head-on into a crash course of some kind that could not have been avoided.

Underscoring the message of the petition that she was now a God-fearing human being and model prisoner Karla Faye herself wrote a letter addressed directly to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor George Bush. Both parties had control over her fate, although the governor would lack the power of clemency without the majority affirmation of the board.

Following is the letter, excerpted:

"I am in no way attempting to minimize the brutality of my crime. It obviously was very, very horrible and I do take full responsibility for what happened...I also know that justice and law demand my life for the two innocent lives I brutally murdered that night. If my execution is the only thing, the final act that can fulfill the demand for restitution for justice, then I accept that...I will pay the price for what I did in any way our law demands it...

"It was...three months after I had been locked up, when a ministry came to the jail and I went to the services, that night accepting Jesus into my heart. When I did this, the full and overwhelming weight and reality of what I had done hit me...I began crying that night for the first time in many years, and to this day, tears are part of my life...

"Fourteen years ago, I was part of the problem. Now I am part of the solution.

"I have purposed to do right for the last 14 years, not because I am in prison, but because my God demands this of me. I know right from wrong and I must do right...

"I don't really understand the guidelines for commutation of death sentences, but I can promise you this: If you commute my sentence to life, I will continue for the rest of my life in this earth to reach out to others to make a positive difference in their lives.

"I see people in here in the prison where I am who are here for horrible crimes...I can reach out to these girls and try to help them change before they walk out of this place and hurt someone else.
  "I am seeking you to commute my sentence and allow me to pay society back by helping others. I can't bring back the lives I took. But I can, if I am allowed, help save lives. That is the only real restitution I can give."

The parole board was unmoved. Governor Bush was unmoved. On January 28, 1998, the appellate court denied clemency for Karla Faye Tucker.`

Her execution was scheduled for the coming week, February 3.


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