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Tucker death exposes system without mercy

Saudi Arabia is among the handful of nations that continues to inflict capital punishment. Beheading is the favored technique. However, in accordance with Islamic law, mercy is built into the system. The executioner, sword raised, can be stopped even at the last moment: A word of mercy from a family member of a victim, and the killing is halted.

By contrast, Karla Faye Tucker’s execution earlier this month in Texas revealed a merciless justice system. Mercy exists on paper all right, but politics and the current mood of the country leave no room for it. That was perhaps the most chilling aspect to the latest U.S. execution.

Gov. George W. Bush could have extended a reprieve up to the last minute. Tucker had begged him to spare her life. All involved recognized she was not the same drug-driven woman who had brutally pickaxed to death two innocents 14 years earlier. No, Tucker had reformed, found Jesus in prison and, by all accounts, was a model inmate, making contributions to the lives of other inmates in prison.

Her plea for mercy had gone before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, a board that had never reprieved a single person -- and reportedly a board that often did not meet when faced with a mercy request.

This woman was a menace to no one. Yet no one was arguing that she be freed. Only that her life be spared.

Increasingly, we need the rest of the human family, those outside our nation, to help us see and understand ourselves, to help tell us who we are becoming as a nation, as a people.

The capital punishment debate has laid bare the injustice and capriciousness of it all. The arguments have been made on these pages time and again. The meaning of Tucker’s execution had more to do with the absence of mercy than the pursuit of justice. For if ever mercy were called for, it was called for in this case. If Tucker could gain no mercy, then mercy is not a part of the system. And absent mercy, the system is without humanity. If so, woe to us all.

Tucker admitted her crime. She had asked for forgiveness. Shortly before her death, she wrote Bush and the Texas parole board: “It obviously was a very, very horrible [crime] and I do take full responsibility for what happened the night of June 13, 1983. ... I also know that justice and law demand my life for the two innocent lives I brutally murdered that night. ... My change, my transformation and rehabilitation was never meant to manipulate anything or anyone. ... Allow me, through this change, to help others make better choices and to change for the better also. I am truly sorry for what I did. I will never harm another person again in my life, not even trying to protect myself. I pray God will help you believe all that I have shared and will help you decide to commute my sentence to life in prison.”

It was not to be.

Not unexpectedly, many in the international community joined with many U.S. citizens begging for mercy. Tucker’s case received considerable attention worldwide because, for one thing, she was a woman, the first set to be executed in Texas since the Civil War, and for another, she had found religion and friends in the born-again community and, furthermore, because by every account the spunky and smiling Tucker had clearly reformed her life. She provided a human face in an otherwise inhuman execution system.

The U.N. human rights commissioner, the president of Italy, the European Parliament and Pope John Paul II were among the many who also pleaded for mercy.

Following the execution, French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn started off a live radio interview by speaking out against it: “Yesterday evening, I hoped, like many others, that this great country America, a country of liberty, would change. I have to say I’m very shocked that, in this day and age, highly developed and cultured countries can continue to impose the death penalty.”

The Spanish broadsheet El País condemned the execution as a “contemptible penalty.” The Spanish newspaper El Mundo suggested that Texas Gov. Bush, a Republican hopeful for the presidential election in 2000, was forced to reject Tucker’s appeal to keep his presidential chances alive.

“If Bush had shown clemency, going in the face of the Court of Appeals, it would have forever remained on his [resumé] as an act of faintheartedness, inappropriate for an aspiring presidential candidate,” El Mundo said in an editorial.

If correct, it speaks a frightening truth that goes well beyond Bush and Texas. It says something quite unsettling about the nature of our nation, about all of us.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998