Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Karla Faye Tucker: Texas' Controversial Murderess

Heaven in Spite of Hell

Evangelist and author Linda Strom often visited Karla Faye Tucker throughout the last decade of her life at Mountain View's death row. Strom's recently published book, Karla Faye Tucker Set Free, relates the inmate's ongoing conversion to religion and attests that Karla Faye died fully repentant of her crime.

According to Strom, Karla Faye had found what she called "the power of forgiveness" when still in Harris County Jail, Houston, awaiting her sentencing. A minister had visited the jail and Karla Faye, attending his services, took a Bible back to her cell more for reading material than as a gesture of faith. But, over the next few days, reading the Holy Book for the first time, she began to realize a strength she never thought she had, enough to carry her through her coming trial and sentencing. By the time she arrived at death row, she had become a spiritual lift to other prisoners there, who found her upbeat attitude a light in the dark.

Recalling Karla, Strom writes, "Not only did Karla see people, she listened to them with her head and her heart...Her words both her spoken ones and written ones packed a wallop and were always encouraging."

Sister Helen Prejean (left) with Karla (Ron Kuntz)
Sister Helen Prejean (left) with Karla
(Ron Kuntz)

In 1995, Karla Faye married Dana Lane Brown, a member of a prison ministry group. Because she was on death row and not permitted to attend ceremonies, Brown married her through proxy in Waco, Texas. The event drew media attention because of the notoriety of capital punishment, Karla Faye being its inherent spokesperson. She had already been the subject of much print expended on the cause from columnists, women's rights activists and politicians, both for and against the issue. During her confinement, she had been visited by various celebrities who believed her conversion to be genuine, including ex-Miss America and broadcaster Terry Meeuwsen, and author of Dead Man Walking, Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean.

Newt Gingrich championed her cause, and so did evangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson tried for five years to remove her from death row, his efforts culminating with a plea for her life on a live television broadcast. At a press conference hosted by the Christian Broadcasting Network, he said, "I am one who has supported the death penalty for hardened criminals. But I do think that any justice system that is worthy of the name must have room for mercy...In the case of Karla Faye Tucker, she is not the same person who committed those heinous ax murders...She is totally transformed, and I think to execute her is more an act of vengeance than it is appropriate justice."

A frequent and surprising visitor to Mountain View Prison was Ron Carlson, brother of Karla Faye Tucker's female victim, Deborah Thornton. At first a rabid crusader for her death, Carlson, like Tucker, found religion and, in the interim, absolution.

His story is highlighted in the 1999 video, The Power of Forgiveness, produced by Gateway Films and presented by Vision Video. The documentary traces Carlson's life his experiences from the anguish he suffered when first learning of his sister's murder and climaxes when he visits an unexpected Karla Faye Tucker in prison.

"It made me sick to know what they did to my sister," Carlson recalls his feelings the day after the killing. "The bodies were mutilated...some twenty-five to thirty puncture wounds on each body...My sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He remembers months of wishing, night and day, that he would someday have the opportunity to kill Karla Faye; he wished he could have her at his mercy, with a pickaxe in his hands. Already having experimented with drugs, the loathing drove him deeper into the practice until his life no longer resembled what it had been before the tragedy.

States he: "I knew I had to do something with the hatred and the anger that was within me. It was consuming me."

Strangely, as did the woman he despised, he found his faith in the Bible. Reading about the crucifixion of Christ, he realized the reality of the tests everyone is put to in this life. "I learned that if I want to be forgiven, I must learn to forgive," he attests.

Seeking audience with Karla Faye, who hadn't known who he was until he identified himself, he leaned toward the Plexiglas window, which separated inmates from their callers, then gently told her who he was and that he forgave her for what she had done. "She cried," says Carlson.

From that one visit they became friends; he visited her often at Mountain View.

The video also examines the flip side of this human reaction through Deborah Thornton's husband, Richard. Until the day Karla Faye was executed, Richard was her most outspoken adversary. On the day she died, he led a group of friends and relatives to the walls beyond the prison to jeer and cheer; handmade signs held aloft directed the condemned inmate to: Have a Nice Day, Karla Faye.

To a cluster of reporters Richard appraised the situation. "This is the day Karla Faye Tucker will die...This is Deborah Thornton Day...What goes around, comes around."

And of her religious conversion, he scoffed. Pointing to the crowds behind him, he replied, "If every one of you were to get transcripts of the 1984 trial and compare it to what Karla Faye Tucker says today you'd have no problem understanding that that woman is lying."


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