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Tucker’s death affected Robertson views

NCR Staff

The execution of Karla Faye Tucker by the state of Texas last year brought protests from an unexpected corner: Christian conservatives, most notably Pat Robertson.

Robertson and others, usually supporters of the death penalty, fought for Tucker’s clemency on the basis that Tucker, a born-again Christian, had been rehabilitated and transformed.

Then recently Robertson, who heads the Christian Coalition, spoke out even more forcefully against capital punishment, to the surprise and delight of some death penalty opponents. During a program on clemency in New York in February, Robertson said that, while he still believed capital punishment should be used for unreformed “vicious killers,” he favored allowances for mercy for those who have had “a genuine change of heart.”

Some conservatives downplayed the significance of Robertson’s apparent about face. Death penalty opponents, though, heralded his stance as a remarkable shift, and, given Robertson’s wide influence, expressed hopes that he would eventually call for the abolition of capital punishment in all cases.

Robertson called for a vast public relations campaign to undercut public support for the death penalty. He echoed Catholic teaching as he called for opposition to the “culture of death” -- a term often used by Pope John Paul II -- saying, “We need to be pro-life across the board.”

Robertson’s remarks in New York were not widely reported. He spoke at a program called “Sparing Cain: Executive Clemency in Capital Cases,” presented Feb. 18 by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

The focus of Robertson’s comments was his experience in seeking clemency for Tucker. “The woman who had been convicted wasn’t there any longer,” he said. “This was a different person. To execute her was an act of barbarity that was totally unnecessary.”

Robertson said that mercy and clemency are also needed in light of the unfairness of the death penalty -- its disproportionate use against people who are poor or members of minorities.

He decried the “air of unseemly vengeance” outside the prison when Tucker was executed. “What kind of animal vengeance is it in a society where people take such delight in this?” he asked.

The dramatic increase in people sentenced to death “does not speak well for our society,” Robertson said.

“Many people who are Catholics, for example, and people of the Protestant faith who are pro-life are saying this is a seamless thing, that life is precious for everybody,” he said. “We’re not looking now for vengeance. We’re looking to protect life.”

Flaws in the system

Robertson’s has not been the only conservative Christian voice questioning the morality of the death penalty after Tucker’s execution. Christianity Today ran an editorial following Tucker’s execution that was “in some ways revolutionary,” according to James Megivern, author of The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey. The editorial elaborated on flaws in the current system and concluded, “it seems clear that the death penalty has outlived its usefulness. It has not made the United States a safer country or a more equitable one.”

“These are steps,” Megivern told NCR. The first step was the case of one rehabilitated person; the next was to look at the problems within the system. “Then, having made these two steps, the next one is [to ask] what is it for? Why do we have it? ... You look at it in terms of the philosophy of punishment,” said Megivern, who spoke on the New York panel along with Robertson, Ohio law professor Dan Kobil and human rights activist Bianca Jagger.

Norman Greene, who heads the committee on capital punishment for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, found that Robertson was “basically a death penalty opponent. In a way he was talking to fellow believers.” Greene served as moderator of the panel.

Greene said Robertson’s presence on the panel “was really an act of courage and humanity. Some circles might view it as breaking with his image. After the program, I know it is consistent with his image.”

Kurt Rosenberg, Death Penalty Project assistant for the American Friends Service Committee, said Robertson’s remarks were “rather stunning in some ways,” but said that Robertson needed to go still further.

“With a few exceptions, he has ignored the other 3,300 people on death row,” said Rosenberg, who founded the Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty. “I don’t want to minimize his turnaround on this issue. He needs to continue to process it and ultimately come out against the death penalty in every instance.”

How much of a turnaround Robertson has undergone is disputed. A spokesperson at Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network emphasized that Tucker’s case was an exception. “Mr. Robertson’s views of the death penalty have not changed, despite what participants gleaned from his remarks in New York,” Patty Silverman told NCR.

Silverman said that a quote found in a 1988 authorized biography was accurate. There Robertson called capital punishment “a necessary corrective to violent crime” and “a great deterrent.” He added, “It is no deterrent whatsoever if it is uncertain and continually delayed.”

Robertson declined to be interviewed by NCR.

Unwilling to take the risk

Considering Robertson’s remarks in New York, Rosenberg compared him to politicians who have problems with the death penalty but are not willing to take the risk of calling for abolition. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he were more anti-death penalty than he’s saying here,” Rosenberg said. “All the other comments he makes are arguments for total abolition. Saying we need to be pro-life across the board seemingly would mean the death penalty is not an option.”

According to Ronald Tabak, who spearheaded the American Bar Association’s resolution calling for a moratorium on executions, Robertson’s involvement in the Karla Faye Tucker case and his criticism of Texas’ clemency process has already had an impact. “It makes it seem legitimate for other social conservatives to rethink the death penalty,” he said. “There’s been this view that unless you’re a wild-eyed liberal totally out of touch with the rest of the country, you support the death penalty.”

Tucker was “an individual that breaks through and embodies something,” Sr. Helen Prejean said. Once you have said that a person has been transformed and should not be executed, then you have to ask if it can happen again, she said. “Is there a possibility that perhaps every human being is more than the worst act of their lives, and that they can be open to redemption?

“Perhaps this has been part of the fermentation in his soul and in his conscience and in his faith that is moving the Pat Robertsons of the world more in the direction of compassion and mercy,” Prejean said. “Perhaps it can move him eventually to a principled position -- not just make an exception on the Karla Faye Tuckers, but in fact no human being should be subjected to that torture.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999