February 02, 1998 12:00 PM

OPPONENTS OF THE DEATH PENALTY routinely rally to protest executions in Texas, so there was nothing unusual about the gathering in Austin earlier this month to plead for the life of condemned killer Karla Faye Tucker. Nothing, that is, but the presence of Ronald Carlson, 42, a Houston machinist who is also the brother of Deborah Thornton, one of the two people Tucker and a friend brutally murdered.

Carlson, whose wealthy businessman father was also murdered, in an unrelated crime, concedes that not so long ago he would have had no sympathy with those calling for mercy. “I didn’t used to feel this way,” he says. “For years I was so angry that I wanted to kill [Tucker] myself.” But six years ago he had a religious conversion, and now he opposes all executions. “She is a person, not an animal,” he says of his sister’s killer.

Tucker, 38, is also a lightning rod in the stormy debate over capital punishment. Scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Feb. 3 in Huntsville, Texas, Tucker, who says she was reborn as a Christian before she was sentenced to die, has seen her cause taken up by an unlikely coalition of liberals opposed to the death penalty and evangelicals moved by her apparent conversion. “There are times that mercy overwhelms justice,” TV evangelist Pat Robertson told viewers of his 700 Club in January, “and that’s what’s called for here.”

The fact that Tucker is female, white, articulate and pretty has clearly drawn attention to her case. She would be only the second woman executed in this country since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976—the other was Velma Barfield, a 52-year-old grandmother and serial poisoner put to death in North Carolina in 1984—and her case has underscored the uneasiness even proponents of capital punishment feel when it comes to executing women. (There are currently 48 women and more than 3,000 men under death sentence in the U.S.) All the same, Tucker says she wants no special consideration because of her gender. “If you believe in the death penalty for one,” she told The New York Times recently, “you believe in it for everyone.”

Unlike many who hope to avoid execution, Tucker doesn’t claim to be innocent. And even her most ardent supporters concede that the murder she committed was especially vicious. On the evening of June 12, 1983, Tucker, then 23, and her live-in boyfriend Danny Garrett, a 37-year-old Houston bartender, were winding up a three-day bender of drugs, alcohol and sex. After midnight they decided to drop by the apartment of a biker acquaintance, Jerry Dean, 27, to steal some motorcycle parts. Bursting into Dean’s bedroom, Garrett smashed his startled victim on the head with a hammer. Tucker then grabbed a pickax lying nearby and buried the sharp blade in Dean’s torso. In all, she inflicted 20 horrific wounds on Dean, and she later bragged to Garrett’s brother Doug that she got a “nut”—street slang for an orgasm—with each blow. (Doug was wired, and the tape was played to the jury that sentenced Tucker to death.)

But Dean had not been alone. Cowering under the bedsheets was Deborah Thornton, 32, a married woman who, after an argument with her husband, had met Dean at a pool party that night and gone back to his apartment. By Tucker’s own account, Thornton begged not to be killed. Tucker struck her in the shoulder with the pickax anyway. In excruciating pain, the sobbing Thornton then pleaded to be killed; Garrett obliged with a vicious kick to her chin and another 14 swings with the pickax.

How anyone could commit such a crime is hard to fathom, but Tucker’s childhood may offer some clues. The youngest of three daughters of Larry Tucker, who owned a boat dealership in Houston, and his wife, Carolyn, a homemaker, Karla found her life beginning to unravel after her parents split when she was 8. Her mother was plagued by drug and alcohol problems, and by age 10, Tucker was shooting heroin. She began working as a prostitute at 13, and after hanging on for a while as a groupie for the Allman Brothers Band, Tucker started to run with biker types.

Almost from the time of her arrest, Tucker seemed eager to make amends, admitting her role in the killings and expressing remorse. She testified freely against Garrett without receiving any promise of leniency. Both were convicted and sentenced to be executed—though Garrett died of liver disease before the state could put him to death. At first Tucker agreed she deserved to be executed, but she experienced a change of heart as her execution drew nearer. During her 14 years behind bars, she says she has helped fellow inmates find their own faith and has counseled troubled youths by letter from prison. In 1993, she married a prison minister, Dana Brown, 42, who became one of her most outspoken advocates. “I can’t give back the lives I took,” Tucker has said, “but I can help save lives now.”

Yet not everyone buys the new Karla Faye. Tony Thornton, 48, Debbie’s widower, believes Tucker’s newfound faith is merely a sham. And Debbie’s son by an earlier marriage, Bucky Davis, who was 11 when his mother was killed, is equally adamant that Tucker should pay with her life. “She’s had her due process, and she admitted to it,” says Bucky, an auto mechanic in Georgia. “And she enjoyed it, from what I remember.”

Tucker, who has seen her case argued fruitlessly all the way to the Supreme Court, filed a last-chance appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Jan. 20. Prospects of success, says University of Houston Law Center professor David Dow, are “just about zero.” Her fate likely rests with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board could recommend that Gov. George W. Bush commute her sentence to life—in which case she could soon be eligible for parole. But without the board’s recommendation, the governor is not legally empowered to spare her, and he has shown no inclination to do so, in any case.

Tony Thornton and his stepson Bucky have been granted permission to view the execution, should it take place. Deborah Thornton’s brother Ronald wants to be there too—but not with the victims’ kin. He wants to sit with Tucker’s family. “I want the world to understand there is a better way,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘Let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone.’ ”

BELL HEWITT

ANNE MAIER and BOB STEWART in Houston and Austin

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