National debate opened on the death penalty
By: Marlene Martin and Mike Corwin
Despite an outpouring of protest from around the world, the state of Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker on February 3, making Tucker the first woman executed there since Texas was a part of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Tucker’s execution received much more media attention than nearly any other case in the recent past. This gave abolitionists an opportunity to raise wider questions about the death penalty with people who had just been awakened to the issue.
But is this fair? Isn’t it hypocritical for abolitionists – who want to stop the death penalty in all cases – to focus on a particular case? These questions came up as a result of the Tucker case, and abolitionists should discuss them.
It is true that most death-row cases go unreported – even executions these days are barely mentioned. The fact that Tucker’s case got so much attention is because she is a woman and because several conservative figures who normally support the death penalty came out in her defense. There are plenty of Black men on death row who have become religious or otherwise turned themselves around, but we almost never hear about that.
But this does not mean that abolitionists should not highlight the Tucker case when we try to convince people to be against the death penalty. Because of the media attention given to her case, millions of people who read about Tucker had to re-think their stance on capital punishment – and many of them changed their minds and no longer support the death penalty.
Tucker herself understood this, telling reporters “If you don’t believe in it for me, don’t believe in it for anybody.”
Highlighting individual cases of people on death row goes a long way in humanizing the issue of the death penalty, as opposed to the rhetoric of politicians who want to show how tough they can be on criminals. In the same way, publicizing the cases of death-row prisoners who are innocent shines a brighter light on the injustice of the criminal justice system as a whole. As Aaron Patterson, a victim of police torture who has been adamant about his innocence for the 12 years he has spent on Illinois’ death row, put it: “My case will open the door for other cases of police brutality and innocence in these prisons… Every innocent person released opens the door wider for others to follow.”
An Austin American-Statesman editorial the day after the execution showed how this was true in Tucker’s case, saying “[Tucker’s execution] was so poignant and unnecessary that it gave all but the most determined death penalty advocates pause.
“Her death… should prompt every judge, jury, and legislator to reconsider the death penalty that Texas indulges with such abandon.”
The job for abolitionists is to make use of every opportunity before us to push the debate about capital punishment into the open. We need to use the case of Karla Faye Tucker to show people that there are many other people like her on death row – and they all deserve our support.