At the Mountain View prison unit in Texas, the highest point is not a mountain, but a guard tower, and the most famous person in town is someone most residents will never meet. She is Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer slated for execution on Feb. 3, and she has divided this town as neatly as the state highway that serves as Gatesville's main street.
Some here call for clemency, others call for the ultimate punishment. But whatever their views, everyone in Gatesville knows why Ms. Tucker has gained so much attention.
"She's a woman," says Tammy Hoover, manager of a general store and cafe in this prison town. "If she were a man, nobody would have thought twice about sentencing her to death for her crimes."
If this perspective seems somewhat jaded, there are certainly facts to back up Mrs. Hoover's views. Last year, Texas executed 37 men with hardly a media murmur. But America so rarely executes female prisoners - even those who commit brutal murders, as Tucker did in 1983 - that Tucker's case was bound to capture the nation's attention and to reawaken the turbulent debate over the death penalty, an issue that had grown dormant in these tough-on-crime times.
"It's hard to execute her," says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group critical of how capital punishment is administered. "We see someone who looks like our sister or our mother ... someone people find less threatening and easier to identify with."
That could be good news for the 45 women currently on death row around the country. And if statistics are any guide, America's justice system is downright squeamish about executing female felons. According to one study, women account for 1 out of every 8 Americans arrested for murder, but only 1 out of 70 of the people who are sentenced to death row. Of the 432 inmates executed since 1977, when the US lifted a death-penalty moratorium, only one has been a woman. (A North Carolina grandmother who poisoned her fiance was given a lethal injection in 1985.)
"Women are screened out of the process all the way through the criminal-justice system," says Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University who has conducted a study of women and the death penalty.
"Prosecutors are more reluctant to charge women with capital murder, and juries more easily believe that women are under emotional distress while committing a crime," which often leads to lesser sentences.
But while Dr. Streib calls the current sentencing structure "sexist, racist, classist, and arbitrary," he adds that the current media frenzy might help shed some welcome light on a "flawed process." "The Tucker case is causing even Texans to talk about character issues and rehabilitation," Streib says. "The good news is that we might start doing that about men, too."
While the debate about capital punishment can often depend on murky arguments, the evidence of Tucker's guilt is surprisingly clear. On June 13, 1983, she and her boyfriend, Daniel Garrett, broke into a Houston apartment and murdered the two occupants with a pickax. At her brief trial, Tucker admitted her guilt outright and told the jury that no punishment was severe enough for her crimes. But while Tucker requested a life sentence, the jury recommended the death sentence, after a mere 70 minutes of deliberation.
Today, Tucker says she would do anything to make restitution to the victims' families and points to her conversion to Christianity as evidence of her rehabilitation. This argument has garnered support from conservative Christians, including TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who have rallied to her side, along with former prosecutors, human rights advocates, and even a relative of one of Tucker's victims. This coalition is calling on Gov. George W. Bush and the state parole board to grant Tucker clemency, putting the tough-on-crime Republican in a ticklish position.
While Governor Bush has some executive levers at his disposal - including granting a 30-day stay of execution - he will largely be bound by the decision of his hand-picked, 18-member parole board. While the decision is still pending, the parole board chairman, Victor Rodriguez, has said that commutation should be granted for only two reasons: actual innocence or a lack of due process. Ordinarily, Bush would be certain to agree. But in an election year, Bush might be willing to alienate the pro-capital-punishment crowd to avoid the wrath of Bible-toting Texans.
While many human-rights advocates welcome their new-found alliance with Christian conservatives, some worry that it might be short-lived.
"When you hear Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson calling for clemency, they're not opposing the death penalty itself - they're asking Bush to make an exception," says Samuel Jordan, director of Amnesty International's campaign to abolish capital punishment.
"But they won't be able to hold that position for long," he adds. "Conservative voters will start to ask, 'Well, if I think it's OK to commute the death sentence this time, is it just for women that we're doing this, or for male prisoners as well?' "
For those who favor capital punishment, all the talk about Tucker's gender and religion is evidence that America's criminal-justice system is more sensitive to the rights of inmates than of victims.
"One would think that if she was truly repentant, her attention would be on the victims," says Dudley Sharp, spokesman for the Houston-based victims-rights group Justice For All. "But it's not. It's on Karla Faye Tucker."
Mr. Sharp dismisses Robertson's campaign for Tucker as "sexist" and "false chivalry." "I don't get it," he says. "There have been a number of born-again Christians on death row, but he has never made the same effort on their behalf. The difference is, she's a woman."
But in Gatesville, a town where the women's prison is the largest employer, the issue just isn't that simple.
"I think she deserves clemency," counters Cindy Stanfield, an employee at a local burger joint who wears a T-shirt that reads "Jesus. Pure Love. He's the real thing." "As a born-again believer, she can reach a lot of people through her ministry in the prison."
Others say Tucker's relationship with God is irrelevant. "How do you know the people she killed weren't born-again Christians?" asks Mrs. Hoover, the General Store manager, whose husband, John, works at the Mountain View prison. "She killed them, and they didn't get special consideration."
"But you know," she adds, as her two toddler sons tug at her denim dress, "my philosophy is that if you take someone's life, they ought to take your life right then and there."