After reading Claudia Card’s essay on “The Moral Powers of Victims” I began to think back to a class I took last semester called Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation. The class consisted of different case studies of situations in which there were gross violations of moral conduct and, in most cases, human rights, such as the Holocaust, Apartheid in South Africa, the Rwandan genocide, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the American Civil Rights movement. We also discussed some incidents of interpersonal (as opposed to institutional) violence in order to study victims’ responses to violence and reconciliation on a microscopic level.
One of the specific cases we went over was the trial and subsequent media coverage of Karla Faye Tucker, who was convicted of double homicide in Texas in 1984 and sentenced to death. Her case garnered much attention because of her gender (the death penalty is rarely sought for women—she was the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War) and her heavily publicized conversion to Christianity while on death row. (Here is the Wikipedia article if you want background info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karla_Faye_Tucker)
The documentary we watched about the case followed the brother (also a newly converted Christian) of one of Tucker’s victims and his struggle to eventually forgive her for taking the life of his sister. The man’s story is heartbreaking, and his forgiveness of Tucker is long-sought and difficult; however, he became her biggest and most public advocate. After Tucker’s religious epiphany, she publicly and repeatedly expressed her infinite shame and regret about her crime. She filed multiple appeals and requests for retrials on the basis that she was now a reformed person and had left her evil ways behind in her “old life” as a non-Christian. This prompted the conservative Christian sector to begin lobbying the Texas judicial system to reduce her death sentence to life imprisonment. Eventually some political and religious leaders joined the fight on her behalf but failed to stop the execution, which took place in 1998.
Tucker did an interview with Larry King just one month before her death. In it she said that at the time of the murder, she felt no shame, no guilt, no compassion for her victims or their families. Yet her closing remarks included the words, “when you have done something that I have done, like what I have done, and you have been forgiven for it, and you're loved, that has a way of so changing you” (full transcript here: http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/03/21/larry.king.tucker/index.html).
Now, in my previous religious studies class, we focused on the Christian aspect of her transformation, but regardless of that, the issue remains, can a person really evolve from a heartless murderer to a human being capable of love and empathy? Is total reform possible? What does this anecdote teach us about the role that forgiving one’s transgressions plays in the offender’s rehabilitation into society? And, is it possible that failure to forgive someone hinders or prevents their full and successful rehabilitation into the social world?