Life Lessons Learned from a Death Row Inmate

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Life Lessons Learned from a Death Row Inmate
by Mercy Hope

What goes through your mind when you hear the name Karla Faye Tucker? A pickax murderer who committed a crime so heinous that your mind couldn’t take it in? The amazing picture of the redeemed woman with the beautiful long black hair, radiant face, and charismatic smile who spoke so often of Jesus her Savior? The memory of the ruling from the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole that denied her request for clemency, causing her to become the first woman to be executed in the state of Texas since the Civil War? It could be that your mind bounces around with thoughts of all of the above—unless, that is, you didn’t follow Karla’s story leading up to February 3, 1998, as I did, and this old news is news to you.

I can tell you a little about the life, and death, of Karla Faye Tucker but unless you know, for instance, what it’s like to watch your mom die of a drug overdose and carry the guilt of having helped inject her, you can’t fully understand the mental and emotional trauma Karla lived under. And unless your life has been radically changed by the love and forgiveness of Jesus, you may struggle to comprehend how such a sinner could become such a saint. However, my hope is that through Karla’s story your faith in the redemptive power of Almighty God, both for the prostitute on the street as well as your own life, will both be greatly elevated.

Karla was born a Texan on November 18, 1959. While the first few years of her life had elements of normalcy they were few and fading. Her parents marriage was on the rocks, a complicating factor being Karla’s mother’s extramarital affair that conceived her. As a result of these tumultuous early years, Karla soon became a victim of bad choices—both those of her parents and siblings, as well as her own.

If you grew up in a home with parents who loved and supported each other you may have a difficult time wrapping your brain around what it would feel like to live with the instability of parents who fought constantly and divorced—multiple times. While many seven-year-old girls are still playing “dress up” with their sisters, Karla was about to follow in her older sister’s footsteps down the dark path of illegal drugs.

By the time Karla was ten, her parents divorced for the last time and she discovered that she was born as the result of her mom’s affair. She then lived with her mom, who was a mother in the biological sense of the word only. Direction and instruction were absent in Karla’s young life. Karla recalled, “There was a point I remember my mother used to tell me ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can do anything you want.’ And then she left it right there. OK, what, mother? Guide me. You’re the one supposed to be guiding me into this. Tell me what I am supposed to do. And where was that?” Because of the innate love and admiration that children naturally have towards their parents, and despite the fact that Karla’s mother Carolyn didn’t deserve Karla’s emulation—she still got it. Actions really do speak louder than words and by the tender age of fourteen Karla was a prostitute—like mother like daughter.

While in the seventh grade Karla dropped out of school before they could kick her out. Her life continued down a path of destruction and devastation that led to the infamous night of June 11, 1983 when an attempted robbery would turn into a double homicide.

In 1981, Karla met Jerry Lynn Dean who became the abusive husband of her best friend. Their relationship was anything but friendly. In 1983, Karla was living with a man named Danny Garrett in a slough of drugs, sex, and violence. Then on June 11th of that same year, Karla, along with her sister, and friends planned a weekend birthday bash for her other sister. That fateful weekend they sat around the house doing massive quantities of illegal drugs.

Across town more bad decisions were being made. Deborah Thornton had a fight with her husband who allegedly ordered her out of the house. She chose to go to a party were she met Jerry Dean, and went home with him. The Word of God warns us that “There is a way that seems right to a man but it leads to DEATH” and on this particular evening that would prove true—literally. Deborah’s brother Ron later said of her “she was in the wrong place, at the wrong time” and this wrong decision cost Karla her life.

So it happened: Karla and her boyfriend Danny, both of whom were high on drugs, sleep-deprived, and angry, drove over to Jerry Dean’s apartment planning to steal motorcycle parts. They didn’t think that Jerry would be home. They didn’t know that not only Jerry Dean, but also Deborah Thornton, were asleep inside as Danny and Karla silently entered the apartment at 3:00 a.m. A scuffle ensued and nearby objects became lethal weapons. That night the souls of Jerry and Deborah entered an eternity in Hell and Karla and Danny were also marked for death—only at a later date.

An Incarceration That Saved a Soul 
Only three months after being incarcerated in Houston, Texas in 1985 a jail ministry came to the Harris County Jail to do an outreach for the inmates. Since everyone else was going and Karla didn’t want to be left alone she went along. She sat quietly through this, one of the few church services she had ever attended, and on the way out “stole” a Bible, not realizing that they were giving them away for free.

Taking her new Bible into her cell, Karla hid in the corner not wanting anyone to see her reading. Looking back to that moment Karla reflected, “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.” This first real encounter with the Word of God left her on her knees on the jail floor asking for God’s forgiveness. She described her conversion like this, “God reached down inside of me and just literally uprooted all of that stuff and took it out, and poured Himself in.” After this initial step of repentance and faith Karla continued on a path of repentance, humility, and growth.

With her words and life Karla preached a message, like a modern day Saul of Tarsus (who was also a murderer) turned Apostle Paul, that God’s heart is to redeem broken lives and use that life to testify that His power to transform has not diminished! As a result of her testimony more souls were rescued from the kingdom of darkness, including Ron Carlson, the brother of Deborah Thornton who in Ron’s words, “was at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Ron observed Karla’s life for six years—writing and visiting her. Ron surrendered his own life to the LORD during that time and became one of Karla’s key advocates, acknowledging that she was his “Sister in Christ.”

Karla challenged her Brothers and Sisters in Christ to reach out to people like her in the prison system, and those who could experience a life-change like her, if someone would just reach out to them. As she would say, “satan condemns. We are supposed to restore and love.” Jesus said that He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. In conjunction to that verse the late Keith Green also challenged his generation by posing the question “Whose fault is it? We know that there is no fault in God and He has already told us in His Word that He is not willing that any should perish” so that leaves the failure with us—those who are supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus here and now, today. Keith went on to say that this generation of souls is not coming to Christ because we are not doing the work. I believe that instead of making excuses we should listen to the voices of the past like Karla Faye Tucker and Keith Green and take our mission more seriously.

Without questioning God’s Sovereignty, I would like to rewind the tape of Karla’s life and examine if the script could have been different if only His servants had moved toward her in obedience at an earlier time in her life. As a quote I just read put it, “God is responsible for the fact of free will. We are responsible for our acts of free will.” This rewind is for the purpose of opening our eyes to those who, as Karla said, “Are like me, or could be like me if someone reached out to them.”

Karla once shared a story that indicated that if a Christian family had reached out to her when she was younger, the path she took could have been very different, and the tragedy of June 11, 1983 may have never taken place as a result. This was one of the only stories I ever heard Karla share of a glimpse that she was given into what seemed to be “normal life.”

In her words Karla shared, “At school this little girl would talk to me. I remember seeing something really different in her. It was like a genuine love for people, but her parents didn’t want her hanging around with me because they thought that I was just a bad, bad child. Somewhere along the way, she talked her mother into letting me go to church with them. I think they must have been very conservative because they wore something on their heads and had to wear dresses. We sat on the front row. At some point, she was down on her knees and really praying in the Spirit. I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ Everybody came and laid their hands on her. I don’t remember doing anything wrong that night, but they never would talk to me again. Why didn’t they reach out to me? Why did they cut me off?”

When I read that quote it chilled me through and cut to the deepest part of my soul as I thought that if only the parents of that conservative

family had reached out to Karla at that impressionable stage that just maybe she could have met Jesus much sooner with much, much less devastation. It is an amazing thing to have a testimony of what God has saved you from after you’ve done it all, but how much more merciful it would have been to her, and her victims, if someone had shown her Jesus so that He could save her from ever committing those acts.

Think about it. Could we be guilty of the same sin? We need to keep our eyes, and hearts, open to souls like Karla who God could touch through us and actively pray that we would not miss such an opportunity! Maybe you even have a “Karla” in your world right now who you have resisted reaching out to—search your heart, assess your sphere of influence and see if there is someone who God could reach through you who you have overlooked in the past. We need to cry out to God and ask Him to help us not to miss a soul who we could touch with His love and truth!

In Ezekiel 3 God gives a clarion message to the Prophet Ezekiel, “Moreover He said unto me, Son of man, all My words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears. And go, get thee to them of the captivity, unto the children of thy people, and speak unto them, and tell them, ‘Thus saith the LORD God’ whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear… Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at My mouth, and give them warning from Me. When I say unto the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die;’ and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul” (vs. 10-11,17-19).

If God puts someone in our path for us to love on and dissuade from the wrong path, and we fail to do so because of apathy, self-righteousness, lovelessness, fear, or any other excuse, we are as guilty as an accomplice, or at least a bystander, to their death. Read that last paragraph again if you need to. Let that truth sink in—this is not something to take lightly.

Ponder with me, if you will: the only difference between Karla the ax murder and Karla the saint, is that Jesus’ servants were willing and available to carry His message of hope to her once she was in prison. Availability plus the power of the Holy Spirit equals deliverance for the bound and broken.

Just last night a friend of mine was telling me over the phone about the recent baptism they had at the prison where they minister. Jesus loves that—and it would have blessed Karla to know about that too. She challenged the typical view of “jail ministry” to go beyond the average approach to “evangelism” to discipleship. She challenged Believers to, “Go to the jails and get involved with the people inside the jails and minister to their needs. Feed them and don’t keep them on the basics. Start someone out with the milk of the word and disciple them, nurture them in the LORD, raise them up into the meat of the word and teach them how to disciple others around them.”

Karla was committed to staying focused and not being pulled to the left or to the right. She was determined to keep her eyes on Jesus and His purpose for her, which was “to share the love of Jesus.”

When CBN News first approached Karla for an interview with The 700 Club, her response was that she would pray about it. Only after seeking God’s will and feeling confirmation that her story could be used to save souls did she agree. Her perspective was, “God has given me a great big open door to share the love of Jesus and I’m gonna do it. Since I’ve known Him and what He’s done for me, my heart has been to share with the world the love that He poured out into me. The forgiveness, the mercy, the way that He can change a life. … To feel [and share] that love that I missed but I know so abundantly now.”

She made sure that it never became about her agenda. She stewarded her platform well and passionately took advantage of every opportunity to introduce others to Jesus for healing, forgiveness, and transformation.

When a reporter commented on how Karla always managed to be bold and consistently bring the conversation around to the redemption found in Christ, Karla responded, “When I first came to know the LORD I wasn’t as bold to share it but when you’ve been given that much and you know the depths that God has brought you from, and you see hurting people you want to share that. There are people out there who don’t know that kind of love and to share that and to know that we are just on this earth for a short time. Our time is short and He has to teach us to number our days. There are people out there who need to know about the LORD and His love. I don’t know if it’s boldness—it’s just love.”

This weekend I had a conversation with a young woman who is struggling to be “bold” for Jesus. Her struggle is that she doesn’t want to be viewed as any different from her peers. As I think about the fear of people’s opinions, and the need for their approval, that is holding this girl, and countless others, back from impacting this world, Karla’s words ring in my ears reminding me that truly, it’s not about how bold, or timid, it’s a question of LOVE. Do we really love other people? Love compels us to speak the truth and help to rescue those still trapped in lies and darkness. Oh, that Jesus’ love would be our driving passion compelling us to speak, and live, His truth! Without exception or exemption, everyone can choose to express Jesus’ love.

It’s Just Love: The Ripple Effect 
Karla’s life of love impacted countless lives—including mine. While many stood in judgment and unforgiveness because of the life that she had lived prior to her conversion, I was drawn in by Jesus in her. I chose to learn from, and be changed by, the testimony of this woman who had been forgiven much and, as a direct result, loved much. Pride keeps us from growth and from getting close to Jesus and one another, but with humility we position ourselves be able to receive what God would teach us through each other. We shouldn’t be surprised when God chooses someone younger, poorer, weaker, intellectually inferior, or even with a sordid past to challenge us and help us grow in the LORD. Pride and self-righteousness can cause us to miss some of God’s greatest blessings. It is worth examining our hearts and asking God if we have missed His messengers because they didn’t come in the package that we would have expected from our self-righteous perspective.

I know that many people missed the amazing messenger that Karla was because they were blinded by pride and vengeance. Yet others, like the brother of one of the victims, chose to move from judgment to forgiveness and was eternally changed in the process. Ron discovered that inspiration and faith-deepening examples are sometimes found in unexpected, even unlikely, places.

Although I never personally sat across from Karla Faye Tucker and placed my hand across from hers on the acrylic glass barrier, I felt deeply connected to her in the Spirit. I watched every news report and interview that I knew about, I interceded on her behalf for hours—including crying and praying over the hours leading up to the moment of her death.

Karla Faye Tucker was put to death by lethal injection on February 3, 1998, but in reality Karla was laid to rest long before that when she surrendered her life to Jesus Christ and allowed Him to live His life through her. As a result, it was Christ Who was seen in the beautiful Karla Faye Tucker. I’d like to share some of the lessons that I learned from the life of this precious death row inmate.

Valuing Souls 
Karla had a way of making the reporters and those around her feel like they were her best friend. Often after leaving Karla they mentioned how comfortable and valuable they felt when they were with her. But beyond the temporal impact, Karla was more concerned about people coming to Christ, and their faith being steadfast, than she was about preserving her own life.

Within the walls that confined her, Karla managed to bring life, value and love to a lifeless, devalued and often loveless environment—only Jesus could do that through her. Her example is a challenge for all of us to let Jesus love and value the many forgotten individuals that our culture devalues—that is certainly a specialty of His and the expression of those things were a gift of Karla’s.

Confession And Repentance 
Karla took responsibility and deeply repented for the things she had done. While testifying during the punishment phase of her trial Karla stated that “even being pickaxed herself would be insufficient to atone for her crime.” She understood that only the blood of Jesus could pay the price for her forgiveness, plus bring transformation.

She also refused to take on the role of a victim. In January 1998 she wrote: “When I share that I was out of it on drugs the night I brutally murdered two people, I fully realize that I made the choice to do those drugs. Had I chosen not to do drugs, two people would still be alive today, but I did choose to do drugs, and I did lose it, and two people are dead because of me.” Yet she also understood that, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and walked in the joy and fullness of that New Life in Christ.

If we would embrace this concept of taking responsibility for our own actions, repenting for our sins so that we can be forgiven and move on with our lives, and forgive those who have sinned against us, it would revolutionize our society! Victims take life and drain life—victors live lives that bring life to others. Regardless of what has happened to us we choose on a daily basis which we will be—inspiring victor or defeated victim.

To Live Is For Christ To Die Is Gain
In an interview with Larry King, he expressed surprise that despite the fact that Karla was living under an encroaching sentence of death she remained “up.” King said, “You have to explain that to me a little more. It can’t just be God?” To which Karla boldly replied, “Yes, it can. It’s called the joy of the LORD. When you have done something … like what I have done, and you have been forgiven for it, and you’re loved, that has a way of so changing you. I mean, I have experienced real love. I know what real love is. 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.”

Karla was truly a woman who was already dead to her self-life even while she was still living. Although many attempts at petitions were made to overturn her death sentence for life in prison, that never became her obsession. In the face of execution, who among us would have faulted her for spending the majority of her time fighting for her own life? How many of us could have walked that out as she did—wanting to live, but willing to die, and keeping the main focus on seeing people brought to Jesus with what time was left?

When asked what she wanted people to remember she said passionately through her bright smile, “That I loved the LORD with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and that I loved people and gave that love out—that love that was in me, that I gave that love out.”

Even though Karla had every reason to be a victim she refused to waste her time that she was watching slip away like an hourglass, in self-pity or self-preservation. She was a beautiful, strong, and selfless victor! Though many of us have much less that hinders us, all too often, we willingly let things hold us down. What a challenge—when asked to tell the world about herself she instead boldly declared the goodness of Jesus! When the media tried to goad her to lash out in anger at those who refused to reverse her sentence of death, she humbly explained that while she would like to live to serve the LORD and the other inmates in the system, she was ready to die if that was what was coming. She was truly a new creation. The old had gone. The new had come. And when the day came for Karla Faye Tucker to lay down and accept her execution, Jesus was shown to all to be alive and well in her!

On February 3, Karla was executed by lethal injection and pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m. It was reported that, with the strength and poise of a gymnast, Karla leapt up on the gurney and whispered a prayer:

“LORD Jesus, help them to find my vein.”

Then, strapped to the table, she looked toward the small window and spoke her last words.

“Can Warden Baggett hear me?”

After being assured that yes, the warden was nearby and was listening, Karla went on:

“I would like to say to all of you—the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family—that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this.”

“Baby, I love you,” she told her husband, Dana (who she had married while in prison). “Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I’m going to be face to face with Jesus now.”

“Warden Baggett, thank you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.”

After her final words, she licked her lips and, according to witnesses, appeared to be humming softly as she waited for the lethal injection.

“But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

“Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” (Revelation 2:10-11).

Karla finished well—and I have no doubt that at the end of her race having lived so beautifully for Jesus with her final years and honoring Him with her final breath that she entered Eternity hearing her Savior’s “well done!” She was faithful unto death, impacting countless lives along the way.

Her life deeply challenges me with a sense of urgency as I get up from this desk and continue this thing called life. I do so passionately, not passively. Unlike Karla, I don’t have the date of my death written on my calendar, but if I die in a car accident later today, or live to see many more years, I plead with Jesus to help me not waste a moment in this line between now and then! I long to be a beautiful expression of Jesus’ love. I desire to show others that no matter how deep we’ve fallen or how low we’ve been oppressed, Jesus can pull us from the rubble of our brokenness. And with the power of the Holy Spirit surging through my being, I press on like Karla, to end this race victorious!

Karla’s death is certainly not in vain as we choose to live by her example. Will you join me in committing afresh to love and serve Jesus and others with the sincerity and passion that Karla so purely modeled? In this moment, will you covenant along with me to live life as a victor, not a victim, because examples like Karla have minimized our life obstacles and proven that the power of God can conquer any and every abuse, hurt, sin, failure, heartache and fear?

LORD Jesus, don’t let us leave these lessons the same! Let us learn from this life that was snuffed out too soon, but whose light continues to shine.

Mercy Hope’s life shines like a beacon of hope. Her background includes poverty and domestic violence. Today, she is happy to be alive to share the freedom that she has found with others, including those still trapped in similar situations. When she is not speaking nationally, Mercy is active in local outreach. She is also an interviewer


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