Family Values?

Even as die-hard America is faltering over the execution question, some hang onto the belief that killing murderers is the only peace of mind a victim's family can hope for. Karla Napoleon asks whether retribution therapy is effective in today's culture of violence.

Karla Faye Tucker Brown, a petite 39-year-old with pretty, curly black hair and intense brown eyes was a devout born-again Christian who worked tirelessly with inmates in Gatesville prison, Texas. Oh and one other thing - she was on Death Row for a brutal double murder. At 6.30 pm, on 3 February 1998, watched by the husband and the brother of one of her victims, she was injected with a lethal concoction of chemicals. By 6.45 she was dead. Previously, the then presidential candidate, George W Bush had mocked Karla's plea for mercy during an interview with CNN's Larry King. "Please," Bush mimicked, pursing his lips, "don't kill me." This is the man who makes the murder of murderers his own personal responsibility for the good of his country. To make it a safer place, and to win elections, he has demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy like no other politician, one which is illustrated quite plainly by these figures: Bush became Governor of Texas in 1994 and between the years 1993 and 1998, not one of the 76 petitions for clemency were granted. Since his rule, just over 150 people have been executed under him in the state.

Born in Harris County, Texas, Karla Faye Tucker could not have expected any less punishment than death when she and her boyfriend Danny Garrett, broke into Jerry Dean's house and battered him and his friend Deborah Thornton to death with a hammer and a pickaxe. A school dropout before she was 12, by the time she reached her teenage years, Karla was already addicted to heroin. When she was 15, she was travelling with a band and working as a prostitute. These stories are not uncommon for those waiting to die on death row, but they don't make the gravity of their deeds any easier to bear or explain away.

Back in Britain, at the time of the James Bulger case, the media honed in on the underprivileged backgrounds of his killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables - James' mother, Denise Fergus, received no comfort from these facts. At the time, she felt she would only have achieved peace from their deaths. But now, in a recent interview with Martin Bashir, she claims her wish is simply to meet them, to ask why they did what they did to her son. Shocking crimes like this and the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, all fuel the old British fervour for revenge and retribution. After Sarah's disappearance, The Mirror carried the following leader: "I want whoever killed little Sarah to spend his life dodging razor blades in his food, needing an armed guard when he takes a shower and fearing his throat being slashed every night. Hanging these bastards really is too good for them."

Why is it assumed acceptable for murderers condemned for their sick and violent behaviour to be punished in the same way? The question of this shady tradition is blurred even more by the many botched efforts. The blood-soaked chest of the accused disturbed one witness who watched the murder of Allen Lee Davies by electric chair in Florida, until she realised the blood formed the shape of a cross and was a sign that God approved his death. In a time when there is growing pressure in America for the abolition of the death penalty, (a bill to abolish it was introduced in 1999), why does a civilised Western country still clutch to the most basest of retributions? Age-old, relied upon reasons have been disproved - it is not a deterrent and with reference to past records, one in seven people executed have been innocent. Ethnic minorities and the underprivileged are over represented in comparison to their population in the state. The only reason left - one that pro-campaigners use to appeal to people's compassion, is the question whether capital punishment is the only way for the families of victims to find peace.

For Richard Thornton, the husband of Deborah, this type of justice could not have come too soon. "I have nothing but sympathy and sorrow for her [Karla's] family," he said. "They are now going through what we have been through. My religion says to forgive, turn the other cheek. I'm not a perfect man. I've tried very hard; I still cannot do it. I don't believe her Christianity. I don't believe her conversion. I never did. I never will." Yet Ronald W Carlson, the brother of Deborah built up the courage to visit Karla in prison. When murderer met victim, she started to sob and couldn't look at him. Ronald forgave Karla and consequently became her friend, a friendship that culminated in him watching her die strapped to a gurney. "Politics is one thing," he expresses on his memorial website, dedicated to Karla, "however human life is another. They are totally different aspects, and should not be dealt with in the same way. Not in my name!"

This is hard for the American ideal to swallow. Families of victims are deemed abnormal if they are not baying for blood. In the case of the paedophile "lynchings" in Portsmouth last year, it was not victims crying out for revenge, but the mob. Renny Cushing, the executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), a group which campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty, places more regard on human emotions, not the mob's. Renny, whose father was shot in his own front room says, "For me to change my beliefs because my father was murdered would only give more power to the killers. They would not just take my father's life, but my values as well."

Gabi Uhl, a music teacher from Frankfurt, Germany, also knows about the injustice and pain of experiencing a friend murdered, although her friend was Clifford Boggess, on Texas Death Row for the murder of two men during two separate robberies. When Gabi remembers her first visit Cliff in Huntsville, Texas, her impression of him is somewhat of a cliché:

"The person I met there made an exceptionally gentle and sympathetic impression on me - it seemed barely conceivable that this was the same man who killed two humans 11 years back in a really brutal manner." Strangers who become close friends with convicted murderers anger those who compassion lies foremost with the victims. Would she be as loving and compassionate to Cliff if he had murdered her mother? But Gabi is adamant she never once forgot the families of Cliff's victims. "If I were in their situation I would feel the same: I can imagine the rage I would have towards the offender and maybe I would wish to see him die to satisfy my desire for revenge."

Like Karla Faye Tucker, like almost every other inmate on death row, Cliff's life has followed an almost pre-determined route. His early life was not ideal. After being shifted from one foster home to another, his attempts to make a life for himself quickly spiraled out of control. In his own words he explained what happened: "I began a very self-destructive 'spree' of drugs and crime that ended 65 days later with me in jail suspected (and guilty) of two murders." Like Karla Faye Tucker, Cliff had found God and had also had some of his ink drawings of death row exhibited.

He placed a notice in the local paper in the places where he had committed his crimes that read: "There is no one to blame but myself. No one put me here, but me. I have made horrible choices in my life, and done horrible things. I am sorry. I sincerely apologise to each and every one of you...My Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has forgiven me, although I understand you cannot...I will be executed on June 11. It is my hope and my prayer that this gives you some measure of peace." For psychologists, this cocksure attitude and his belief that he was to make friends with his victims in heaven, showed probable psychopathic tendencies, but Gabi would class Cliff as one of her closest friends.

Like Ronald W Carlson, Gabi saw her new friend die, strapped to the gurney, only able to turn his head a little. The inanity of the exercise played with her mind. Fully conscious people were standing by, ready to kill a man in the name of punishment and retribution. Cliff's smile to her was taken by his victims' families who thought Cliff had got away too easily and was not taking his death seriously enough.

The experience taught Gabi that families cannot be satisfied this way. "I doubt that the execution of the murderer really brings the closure and peace the relatives of the victims' long for. Nothing can take away the hurt and grief - not even Cliff's death. In my eyes, it only created more hurt and grief." Six months after Cliff's execution, Gabi saw the granddaughter of one of the victims who had witnessed the execution, on TV, who, in Gabi's words, "seemed to have the same hatred in her heart."

Pat Bane, from MVFR venerates this principal whole-heartedly. Pat, whose uncle was murdered, explains in the article, Murder Victims Families Are Not Served by Another Death: "When a family receives the news that a loved one has been murdered, they are in a state of shock. Disbelief and denial give way to rage and this is a very normal reaction to killing. We should be angry whenever violence takes a life." Pat explains the need for victim support and counselling to be restructured so that retribution is not even an option, but hope and love are offered instead. "When they are desperately seeking hope that will carry them through a very painful time, victims' families are offered another death." Instead of peace, watching an execution can cause many adverse repercussions, it can open up the old wound of their loved one and some even have to cope with the life of another human being taken in their name.

An eye for an eye - a mantra quoted as an excuse for murder. Why does Britain wish to return to this painful state of affairs? Does it stop killers inflicting any more pain on any others? Certainly. But does it really serve as closure for the families of those left behind? People will never find peace solving violence with violence. Must murderers be tortured before families are satisfied? The never-ending cycle of hatred and bitterness cannot be broken this way. We should learn from the US and the people who are really affected by the issues we talk so casually about. Renny Cushing: "I oppose the death penalty because, ultimately, I don't believe it helps individuals or society. I don't really care what happens to murderers. I oppose the death penalty because of what it does to the rest of us."

Karla Napoleon

February 2001