Forgiving Murderers

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One of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity is a belief in the power of forgiveness, and it is time for all of us to realize this extends even to those who have committed horrible crimes. That is what Christianity is about: offering forgiveness even to those who seem like they could never be deserving of it.

In 2007, the United Nations approved a resolution for a global moratorium on capital punishment. Capital punishment has been abolished in every country in Europe with the exception of Belarus. Even Russia no longer performs executions. The Catholic Church’s position has evolved on the issue, and in the time since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s, the Church has opposed capital punishment. However, in the past, the death penalty was widely used for a variety of crimes, even some less severe than murder.

Implicit in the continued existence of capital punishment is the belief that these murderers cannot reform their lives in prison and ought not be given second chances. However, one case calls question into this belief that even the worst criminals are beyond moral redemption. This is the case of Karla Faye Tucker.

Karla Faye Tucker did not have an ideal childhood. Her mother was a drug addict who taught her daughter about the ways of the streets. As a teenager Tucker began using drugs herself and engaging in gang related activity and prostitution.  One night Tucker and a fellow gang member Daniel Garrett to steal motorcycle parts of an acquaintance named Jerry Dean.  When they arrived at Dean’s house they were surprised to find him home with his girlfriend Deborah Thomton. A struggle ensued, and Tucker hacked Dean and Thomtonwith to death with a pickaxe.  She then left the ax embedded in  Thomton’s  chest. She would later be sentenced to death for her crimes, which were nothing short of horrific in both their consequences and the terrible manner in which they were carried out.

While in prison, Tucker began to read the Bible and converted to Christianity, taking responsibility for her former misdeeds and seeking to encourage young people to avoid a life of sinfulness. Tucker spoke about her faith: in an interview with Larry King shortly before her execution: 

“[Prior to my first arrest, I] had never been in jail. I didn’t know that they gave out Bibles out free in here to those who needed them. So I took this Bible into my cell, and I hid way back in the corner so nobody could see me, because I was like really proud. I didn’t want anybody to think I was being weak and reading this Bible. I realize now, you have to be stronger to walk with the Lord in here than you do to not walk with him.”

“It’s a whole lot harder, let me tell you. But anyway, that night I started reading the Bible. I didn’t know what I was reading and before I knew it, I was just — I was in the middle of my floor on my knees and I was just asking God to forgive me.”

She finished the interview, resigned to her fate, even looking forward with what she described as excitement about meeting God:

“I know what forgiveness is, even when I did something so horrible. I know that because God forgave me and I accepted what Jesus did on the cross. When I leave here, I am going to go be with him.”

Tucker encouraged young people to learn from her mistakes and avoid a life of drugs and delinquency. As her execution date drew near, many people in the United States and abroad petitioned the government to commute Tucker’s sentence to life without parole. They cited her conversion to Christianity and her work in youth ministry. However, these efforts fell short, and Tucker was executed by lethal injection on February 3, 1998 after her appeals were rejected by both the courts and then-Governor George W. Bush.

So was justice served by this execution?  In order to answer this question let’s look at forgiveness, a term that many misunderstand. Some take forgiveness to mean that this is akin to letting Tucker off the hook. However, this is not what is meant by forgiveness at all.  When I forgive someone for a wrong he has committed against me, I am relieving myself of the bitterness I am holding inside. This is not condoning the actions of what this person did. But often in practice, when someone wrongs us, we want to enact revenge upon this offender, and capital punishment is one example of society’s eagerness for retribution rather than constructive forgiveness.

Critics argue that Karla Faye Tucker committed a horrible crime and therefore deserved to die. There is no question what she did was despicable and that she deserved to be punished and to be housed in a place where it would never again be possible for her to harm others. However, to kill her, in turn, not only causes additional heartache for her loved ones but trivializes the hope that all people are capable of reforming themselves and finding divine peace, even if they have done terrible things in the past.

By killing her, it was if the government was saying: We do not care that you have turned your life around and found redemption. It is not important that your prison record is spotless or that you have demonstrated complete remorse. You even contribute to the lives of young people by warning them of the dangers of the lifestyle you led. None of this is as important as our desire to make a statement, to be retributive.

The position of the Catholic Church and many in the Christian community is that the death penalty is, first and foremost, “cruel and unnecessary” but also that it fails to allow for those who have sinned to find God and atone for their wrongdoing. One of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity is a belief in the power of forgiveness, and it is time for all of us to realize this extends even to those who have committed horrible crimes. That is what Christianity is about: offering forgiveness even to those who seem like they could never be deserving of it.
Thomas Nordeman is a pro-life activist and Catholic campus minister. Mr. Nordeman has spoken at numerous engagements throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on the subject of maintaining faith when confronted by physical disability.

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