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  1. The ideological work of narratives of extreme violence is the subject of this essay. The apocryphal confessions of Henry Lee Lucas will be examined in order to show that narrative authority has greater power than fact, even where that fact is at issue in law. What maintains Lucas's reputation as one of the world's worst serial killers--even after the debunking of the majority of his confessions by the Attorney General of Texas--is the typicality of his self-spun narrative of serial killing. The cruelty to which he confessed eclipsed other more "ordinary" homicides, cases cleared on the basis of his confessions. In this way the "ideological work" of Lucas's confessions is the construction of a horizon of "unacceptable" violence beneath which more ordinary cruelties vanish from sight.
  2. The Making of a Serial Killer

  3. Early in July 1998 Henry Lee Lucas had his single death sentence commuted to life imprisonment by then Governor of Texas, George W. Bush. This was a surprising event in several ways. It was surprising for Texas--the state with the largest number of prisoners on Death Row and the most executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Stays and commutations sought on the basis of "new evidence" are seldom successful--the state is not above executing someone who is wrongfully accused, innocent, or (more frequently) has had no benefit of competent counsel.[1] The increasing formalism of capital due process has meant a reduction of legitimate avenues for appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit found against one of Lucas's habeas corpus requests for review on the basis that "it is not settled law that a compelling claim of innocence is alone grounds for federal intervention"--that is to say, innocence is not enough if the death sentence was arrived at during a fair trial, by deliberation on the evidence then available.[2] Lucas's commutation came at the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, a body who--in the twenty previous years of escalating execution rates--had not intervened once to stop an execution.[3]
  4. But also surprising is the fact that this sudden largesse was directed at someone who continues to figure--in Web sites, true crime encyclopedias, monographs, and in the popular imagination--as one of America's worst serial killers; Lucas is widely thought to have killed over 200 people. Even those whose business it is to critique the category of the serial killer tend to forget that the evidence to support his inflated kill ratio is slight. They forget the findings of the methodically researched "Lucas Report," commissioned by the Texas Attorney General's Office in 1986, which raised serious doubts about Lucas's perverse success as a serial killer.[4] The "Lucas Report" notwithstanding, Lucas's name has not been erased from the popular pantheon of killers. People seem to want to believe the grimly evocative tales Lucas told to the Texas Rangers and folks from various County Sheriff's offices who came to him, hat in hand, with their unsolved cases. It is almost as if compulsive lying could be taken as evidence of--or as an acceptable equivalent for--the supposedly compulsive quality of the most serial serial killings. In the case of Henry Lee Lucas, then, two questions arise. Firstly, why has the narrative of his guilt proven--against all evidence--so enduring? And, secondly, why was his claim for relief successful when the equally strong claims of so many others before him had not been? I'm going to argue that the answers to these two questions are related, as are the questions themselves.
  5. As I've already indicated, the law in the Lucas case was not exceptional enough to fully explain the granting of relief. Thus, in what follows, I explore the surprising coalescence of mercy and justice on the part of the State of Texas by comparing the case of Lucas to that of another convicted murderer, Karla Faye Tucker. Tucker was not a serial killer, but she confessed to and was condemned to death for crimes that were considered monstrous--by the trial jury and the media. The different ways in which both of these killers exercised the practice of confession, and the markedly different results of those confessions, reveal something about contemporary attitudes toward violence, as well as the degree of cultural interest in narratives of extreme cruelty.
  6. Like Karla Faye Tucker, Henry Lee Lucas was taken into custody in 1983. After his conviction in 1984 for the "Orange Socks" Murder,[5] he was for a while the most well-traveled killer in custody, being chauffeured across Texas and between states by the Texas Rangers, to whom he had begun to confess his many "additional" murders. 213 cases, the majority of them within the state of Texas, were cleared and accounted for as Lucas's work or that of both Lucas and his partner, Ottis Toole.
  7. In his early years in custody Lucas inspired a number of popular "true" crime or fictional texts around his life, including Mike Cox's quasi-biographical Confessions of Henry Lee Lucas and the controversial film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Arrested at the age of 49, Lucas was older than many of his serial killer contemporaries, who are typically profiled as deadly between the ages of 27 and 45. He made up for this atypicality with his self-selection to type. He told stories of an abusive and deprived childhood, went on to describe his rootless existence as an adult, and--in detailing the murders--flourished his pronounced psychopathology to both expert and lay interviewers. One brief description succinctly describes Lucas's inflated claims:

    First Henry Lee Lucas confessed to strangling his traveling companion, 15-year-old Becky Powell, and burying her in a field. The one-eyed drifter's next admission was grislier. He said he stabbed 82-year-old Kate Rich to death, had sex with her, lugged the body home, cut it to pieces and burned it in a wood stove behind his cabin in Texas. The shocks were just beginning. Arraigned for her murder in 1983, Lucas told a packed courtroom: "I killed Kate Rich, and at least a hundred more." He gave bigger death counts later, some precise, some rounded up: 157 in all... no, 200, 231, 600. He said he'd killed women in 27 states with nylon rope, a phone cord, .22s, .38s, .357 magnums, rifles, knives, statues, vases, a hammer, a roofer's axe and a two-by-four. (Pedersen 64)

    This paragraph captures the gruesome élan of the serial killer's excess, excess that Lucas was seen by many to exemplify.
  8. Lucas's lengthy confessions should have raised doubts about his credibility. Not only did he claim a tally of somewhere between 157 and 600 dead, but he accounted for his victims across fifteen states and, in one particularly florid tale, outside of the U.S. altogether.[6] Loquacious about his ordinary brutalities, Lucas was equally articulate about acts extraordinary even for him. He was the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa--he said. He oversaw the delivery of poison to the Rev. Jim Jones's compound in Guyana--he said. And, to give some kind of overarching form to the various cruelties he'd claimed, Lucas asserted that he'd done much of his killing under the auspices of a satanic cult, "The Hands of Death." These incredulous claims were buried beneath the information about Lucas's "regular" killings that was being amassed by the Texas Rangers.
  9. Lucas's spirit of cooperation was itself taken as evidence of a serial killer's nature. As one anonymous FBI witness put it to the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations, "You just can't shut these guys up. They... want to talk about their crimes" (qtd. in Tithecott 101). Lucas's confessions were detailed, grisly and full of self-aggrandizement. He had a nuanced sense of the language suitable for a psychopath, lacking not just affect but any appreciation whatsoever of the integrity and particularity of others. Mark Seltzer quotes Lucas as saying "[a] person was a blank" (12).
  10. Lucas began recanting his confessions just prior to the release of the Attorney General's Report and the deepening of the appeals process. He then admitted that he'd gotten the information he'd "confessed to" from the Orange Socks case file, left sitting in front of him by an over-zealous Texas Ranger (Pagel). Later in the appeals process, Lucas told a reporter from the Detroit News, "I don't think anybody, a human being anyway, could kill 600 people. I made up some of the worst details you've ever heard, like how to mutilate a human being.... I told them I cut this one girl up in pieces and made hamburger out of her. I didn't do any such thing" (Pressley). Lucas insisted he'd killed no one but his mother--and even that he couldn't remember: " I just remember hitting her, but they say I [killed her] , so I'll go along with that one" (Pressley).
  11. Lucas's tales of murder restyled as feckless criminality showed an apparent change of heart about the world and his place in it. He struggled to shed the psychopathic image he'd previously cultivated. In this way he distanced himself from his friend and confederate, Ottis Toole, who was busily recanting his own confessions.[7] The tone of Lucas's recanting moved from one of bafflement to one of righteous indignation as he accused the police (whose attentions he'd earlier craved) of underwriting his confessions just to get cases off their books. Lucas's magnanimity receded with each failure of the appeals process. As could be expected, the closer the execution came, the more his mind turned to his own situation. Lucas began to think that his "biggest crime [since the murder of his mother] was to play along with police officers who viewed him as a convenient scapegoat." And his capital crime? "They're going to execute me for lying. That's what they're going to execute me for" (qtd. in Hylton).
  12. Lucas had begun to heartily regret having confessed so spectacularly to Texas Rangers and local agencies of the FBI. Even the solid evidence that supported his recantations didn't seem to help. According to Phil Ryan, the Ranger who'd arrested Lucas, "If anybody deserves to die for something he didn't do, I've never met a better candidate than Henry" (Pedersen 64). Despite his own protests and the evidence to support his recantation put forward by the Texas Attorney General's office, opinion remained divided about the status of his confessions. Understandably, the Texas Rangers continued to defend their clearing of the associated cases. One retired Ranger, Jack Peoples, warned that "if the people of this area believe him [recanting], that's their problem" (Thurman). The son of a woman supposedly murdered by Lucas (her murder being one of the "cleared" cases) sent an angry rebuke to Peoples in the Amarillo Globe-News: "First of all, it is not a matter of believing anyone. The evidence, or lack thereof, speaks for itself.... A confession does not a killer make" (Thurman). Perhaps not, but a chauffeured walk down I-95 with a member of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the County Sheriff looking for body dump sites certainly did seem to make a killer. Law enforcement in Georgia and Florida stood by the initial clearances and seem to want to continue to do so despite the commutation of Lucas's sentence.
  13. Indeed, in this story of confession and recantation, everything seemed to happen despite countervailing information. Lucas seemed set to be executed despite the evidence suggesting his innocence for the crimes. People continued private investigations into the murders of their relatives despite the official closing of the cases. The Texas Rangers stood by their clearance of those cases despite heavy criticism from the State Attorney General's Office about both their procedure and its results. The tag "serial killer" continues to prefix the name Henry Lee Lucas despite the lack of evidence for his inflated kill ratio. The narrative continues despite the facts. This is not news regarding either due process or the media (one need only remember the sad case of the security guard who discovered the backpack-bomb at the Atlanta games). A bad reputation, once made, is very difficult to unmake--the reputation for killing included. But there are other things in play in the struggle over the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas. What was it that made his confessions so tenable?[8]
  14. Confession, Testimony and "False Witness"

  15. The discursive field for confession has increasingly come to include a commodification of suffering. Trauma as narrative crosses and re-crosses the contemporary American cultural terrain. Confession as a narrative of trauma marks the intersection of all sorts of competing discourses in the popular realm--legal, criminological, psychological, therapeutic, and folkloric. James Ellroy's Dark Places marks one such intersection. Ellroy made successive public appeals for information on his mother's unsolved 1958 murder. His book records just some of the responses that crammed his answering machine. Of those offering leads, a fair proportion were women accusing fathers (who had abused them) of the rape-murder of Jean Ellroy. One of these, whom Ellroy called the "Black Dahlia lady," dutifully replied to each and every plea for information. After cross-checking her story, he dismissed her claim and decided that she could not explain his mother's murder or his own favorite bête noir, the killing of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the "Black Dahlia."[9]
  16. While Ellroy didn't doubt the tales of abuse he heard, he found the structure of narrative oddly colonizing: "Their grief was all-inclusive. They were writing an oral history of the ravaged kids of our time. They wanted to include my story. They were evangelical recruiters" (Ellroy 297). "All-inclusive" naturally says it all. A close reading of Janice Knowlton's memoirs (she was the so-called "Black Dahlia Lady") reveals a tale of suffering that is a grab-bag of horrors. The authority of her story of her father's hidden career of murder has a similar mechanism to Lucas's florid confessions. Where he includes Jim Jones and the "The Hands of Death," she has the conspiracy against Marilyn Monroe and unnamed cults.
  17. Knowlton details a traumatic epic, the narrative comprised of recovered memories of her childhood and adolescence. She remembers witnessing numbers of killings (from which, at the time, she "went away"--her coy term for what both her therapists and co-author agree was a dissociative state). Her father's alleged killings neither ended nor began with the death of the Black Dahlia but covered a five-state area and thirty-year period. Knowlton links her father not only to the most notorious murder in postwar Los Angeles, but also to a Satanic Cult active in the 1950s. And her links between the secret and the public don't just refer to the realm of the macabre, but refer to other cultural landmarks as well--linking, for instance, the Black Dahlia to a "secret" friendship with Marilyn Monroe. What Knowlton's narrative lacks in its basis in fact,[10] it makes up for in its claim to authority: the sheer breadth of its linkages with the commonsensical and the mythological. That search for authority extends outward into myth, mystery, and notoriety. (Indeed, one of the few things that Knowlton doesn't blame her father for is the death of Elvis.) Knowlton's testimony of personal violence is laid upon a backdrop of public, popular, and even historical trauma.
  18. The intimate exposure of the convex folds of memory becomes therefore not just a public act of confession, but an intervention into the meaning of public life and public record. Her narrative thus fits into a set of proliferating discourses about "personal" traumas played out on a public stage. And, more importantly, her narrative pairs the portrait of victimization (the narrative of suffering) with that of the serial killer, the authority of the one supported by the horror of the other. Customarily, the narratives of those who suffer and those who cause harm are separated--theirs is no dialogue but rather one answering the other to rectify loss and the record of wrong (as in the case of victim impact statements in the penalty phase of capital trials). But in what other ways can narratives of the agents and the victims of trauma be seen to relate to one another? Are they in any way interchangeable at the level of consumption? The similarities between Knowlton's figuring of her father's wanton and inexhaustible cruelties and the continued persuasiveness to the popular imagination of Lucas's stylization of himself as serial killer would seem to suggest that such narratives of suffering and cruelty are indeed related.
  19. Narratives of cruelty and narratives of suffering hold in common their ability to impart meaning and identity to those who suffer cruelty and those who commit it (although both groups need not be mutually exclusive). Serving time in prison for committing a violent crime, one inmate spoke of the choice posed by suffering: "'If I don't do evil, then evil will do me. If I weren't evil, I'd be shit'" (qtd. in Alford 115). What Knowlton's narrative and Lucas's confessions share is their ability to construct an awful ideality: the meta-identities of victim and killer.
  20. If testimony, in Judith Herman's phrase, "has both a private dimension, which is confessional and spiritual, and a public aspect, which is political and judicial," then, by the very nature of the act of testimony, the narrator of suffering endured is initiating the "restoration of the social order" (qtd. in Leys 123). Herman assumes that testimony and its power belong primarily to those who have suffered the cruelty or the annihilating intent of others.[11] But what of the situation of those who have not only suffered cruelty, but dispensed it as well? (Such is the case of certain ex-combatants suffering war-related trauma, where one suffers for what one has done as well as for what one has witnessed or endured.)[12] And what of those who have primarily been agents of cruelty? Does the "remembering and telling of terrible events" work toward the "restoration of the social order and... the healing of individual victims" when the person testifying put those events in train?
  21. The testimony of the guilty is problematic because it fulfils the broad definition of testimony (bearing witness to terrible events) while simultaneously being suspect, potentially or implicitly self-serving. Often, guilty witnesses will witness to the terror in general but not to what they themselves did. They will, in short, place themselves outside of the stream of events, as if they were merely recording, rather than carrying out, that destruction. And such prevarication might not even be conscious. As Primo Levi puts it:

    We are unable to detect whether the subject does or does not know he is lying. Supposing, absurdly, that the liar should for one instant become truthful, he himself would not know how to answer the dilemma; in the act of lying he is an actor totally fused with his part, he is no longer distinguishable from it. (17)

    In Levi's formula we can read the act of lying testimony as being a matter of identity: the liar as wedded to the lie. The lie tells him as effectively as the truth would, because his identity is the lie. But in this description of the liar, Levi also gives us a way to look at the political dimensions of the lie, the world by which the confession, the testimony, and the witnessing is received. Neither the liar nor the lie can stand alone. Both the narrative obscured and the story told are productive--a part of history, or the silence from which a history (and a politics) arises.
  22. Where testimony relates to matters that pass under the banner of "evil" as it is presently understood (murder, and particularly serial murder, being a case in point), testimony is imbued with the aura, the uncertainty, and the complexity of its relation to the Holocaust--as the Holocaust continues to be the "leading image of evil" for our times (Alford 17).[13] And one of the particular burdens of testimonies of suffering has been to provoke recognition from those responsible for that suffering. Painful assertions of historical and personal truth continue to be met with the silence, the forgetfulness, and the lying of the perpetrators--those who have given false witness, those who--in Levi's phrase--have acted in "bad faith" (the Institute for Historical Research is a particularly flagrant example). In such a situation a free confession of guilt--a confession that places the agent of violence at the center of the narrative--may be greeted with profound relief. Even when that confession is a lie.
  23. Robert Jay Lifton has written of the "false witness" to death of those who secure a measure of psychological survival by the strategy of visiting suffering upon others, thereby displacing the "death taint" and their own proven vulnerability. Lifton's discussion takes in the problematic case of the soldiers at My Lai and, in a very different way, the case of the prisoner doctors at Auschwitz. But the implications of his analysis of the "false witness" are more general:

    False witness tends to be a political and ideological process. And really false witness is at the heart of most victimization. Groups victimize others, they create what I now call "designated victims,".... They are people off whom we live not only economically... but psychologically.... We reassert our own vitality and symbolic immortality by denying them their right to live and by identifying them with the death taint, by designating them as victims. So we live off them. That's what false witness is. (Lifton, qtd. in Caruth 139)

    While Lifton is discussing survival, responsibility, and witnessing in the context of specific persons and specific historical events, his widening of the implications of "false witness" implies that "false witness" is discursive, not solely a property of persons but a productive property of cultures--an engine of history, not its consequence. It is this concept of "false witness" to which I would now like to turn with a comparison of the ideological work of the literal "false witness" of Henry Lee Lucas to the quite different workings of false witness in Karla Faye Tucker's confession of cruelty and later attempted redemption through religious witness.
  24. Karla Faye Tucker

  25. Like Henry Lee Lucas, Karla Faye Tucker confessed to having committed extraordinary cruelties. But her confession (replayed during the trial and much publicized thereafter) did not establish an awful ideality and invite fascination along with disgust. Instead, it described a violence so anomalous and so extreme that it seemed to stand utterly without reference. And the power of that anomalous confession of sexual cruelty--by a woman--was such that Tucker was never able to successfully remake herself as penitent in the public eye. While Lucas's confessions seemed to describe that typical atypicality of the serial killer, Tucker's were the antithesis of contemporary cultural understandings of female violence and, indeed, wider stereotypes of femininity.
  26. Karla Faye Tucker's execution by the State of Texas was perhaps the most controversial execution in the U.S. since that of Gary Gilmore in 1976. The controversy surrounded her gender as read through the lens of the contest between the killer and the born-again penitent about to be executed. Tucker had implicated herself by confessing, not merely to murder, but to the additional "crime" of having sexually enjoyed the killings. That is, Tucker confessed to having orgasmed while repeatedly stabbing both Jerry Dean and Deborah Thornton with a pickaxe in Dean's apartment in 1983. On the strength of that boastful confession to friends (played to the jury during the trial), Tucker's example has been held out as evidence for what some consider to be a new "trend" in female sex crimes (Rappaport).[14] The other circumstances of the crime--that it was committed with her companion, Daniel Garrett, the culmination of three days of heavy drug use--were overshadowed by this single fact. The aggravated circumstances of the crime taken into account during sentencing seemed to be more about Karla Faye Tucker's orgasm than they were, say, about the unusual brutality or the "motivelessness" of the act. The "thrill" in the kill was Karla Faye's and so, coincidentally, was the fate prescribed for it--she alone was executed, while Daniel Garrett died in prison of liver disease.[15]
  27. In the fifteen years between the killings and her execution, Karla Faye Tucker was saved: she was "born again" (not necessarily unusual on death row). Though not unique in being penitent, the contrast between the murderer and the penitent was particularly starkly drawn in the furor surrounding Tucker's gender. One of only a few women on Death Row in Texas, Tucker became the first woman to be executed there since the Civil War. While the battle raged between those who thought it impolitic to execute a woman and those who thought feminism was getting what it asked for, deep-seated cultural anxieties were exposed by the discourse around Tucker's gender.
  28. The problem for Karla Faye Tucker was that the power of witness could not eradicate and over-write the cultural power of her original confession to cruelty. While Tucker had latterly provided an admission of guilt and the even more satisfying contrition to accompany it, the distance between her present incarnation as repentant witness and her past incarnation as professed sinner was a narrow one. While her supporters agreed that she was a "different person" than the one who did the killing ("International Appeals to Spare Tucker Fail"), the irreducible and particularly embodied fact of her sinning self remained.
  29. Tucker's persona as repentant witness and member of the faithful rewrote the "kind of woman" she had been. That is to say, by remaking her soul, Tucker invited potential new readings of her femininity and her sexuality. One writer commented on the "fresh-faced sexual desirability" of Tucker in her last days; her ultra-feminine "winsomeness" (King 72). Being saved entailed a renovation of her femininity--in her last year she presented herself as being respectable and conservative. But then, in another sense, the style of Tucker's contrition and her narrative of salvation can be seen as being discursively undermined by the persistence--in the face of her spiritual redemption--of a highly sexualized and gendered corporeality. The Christian tenet of a relationship between the fate of the flesh and that of the spirit (where the spirit is cleansed by the sufferings of the flesh) broke down in the case of Tucker, despite the pleas of numerous concerned divines that her debt be considered paid. An ostensibly gender-free, anti-Aristotelian distinction between flesh and spirit has been a constant throughout the history of Protestant attitudes to sin, redemption, and punishment. While the physical form has become less important and the life of the soul more important throughout the development of--particularly--evangelical Protestant traditions, the situation of the condemned criminal has always been slightly novel. The coverage of Tucker's contrition and of her punishment are inextricably entwined, so that Tucker remained accountable for her transgressions even after her death.[16] It was--after all--a language of the body that condemned Karla Faye Tucker. Her original confession retains a strange residual power in its embodiment of the feminine, that orgasmic, drug-crazed, dissipated female body that the State of Texas would execute to allow the liberation of the penitent spirit.
  30. The ungendered discourse of redemption by witness can't contain the wanton particularity of the confession and its transgression of the feminine. As one writer cynically remarked:

    Her irreparable mistake was boasting that she orgasms while killing.... True, she was a prostitute, but the orgasm claim was surely a lie. The murder occurred in 1983 when the multiple-orgasm craze was going full-tilt.... I would bet that enough of this pop carnality filtered through to Karla Faye to inspire the trendy lie that sealed her doom. (King 72)

    The tense says it all: she orgasms while killing. That boastful moment becomes in this formulation a statement about habits--a description of all possible potential encounters. Reading this, one is forced to wonder whether Tucker would still orgasm while killing. The original confession bequeaths a future that is ineradicable. Ironically, Tucker can't escape the femininity she's impugned. The witness does not cancel out the confession. Tucker's literalization of the profanity of the female body doubly condemned her.
  31. The False Witness of Karla Faye Tucker

  32. In what way can the concept of false witness be applied to the case of Karla Faye Tucker? False witness is, in one way, a failure to witness. Not failure in the sense that Dori Laub, referring to the Holocaust, defines as the inability of the "historical insider" to remove him- or herself "sufficiently from the contaminating power of the historical event" (Laub 66). False witness is a very different kind of failure to witness, although it too contains a failure or inability to bear witness to oneself. Certainly, if we go along with Florence King's theory about the "trendy lie that sealed her doom," then Karla Faye Tucker acted as false witness to herself.
  33. But there is something more to it, another level of false witness at work within the case of Karla Faye Tucker. She is both the object and the subject of false witness. In the most general sense, Tucker is the object of false witness because she was arbitrarily (due process notwithstanding) selected for death. The majority of those currently on death row throughout the United States are African American and Latino men from the working classes or the permanently, structurally unemployed. While the racial demographics of women on death row shows a less clearly raced and classed group, the way in which their crimes are gendered (and gender is itself raced and classed) demonstrates a particular unhappy truth about capital due process--a truth that George McClesky failed to advance in his own defense (or, for that matter, failed to advance in the defense of others similarly situated).[17] That is, capital due process sacrifices those upon whose lives a lower social value is placed in reprisal for the loss of those more highly valued.
  34. This is not to say that individuals are not guilty of specific crimes and that those crimes very often are--in Lifton's terms--themselves the product of false witness (viz. the displacement of one's own suffering upon others). In a larger sense the "juridical complex" (the judiciary, penal institutions, and capital due process) is itself a material strategy of the "ideological process" of false witness--symbolically and literally producing, and then eliminating, a whole class of "designated victims." And the sacrifice of those "designated victims" rehabilitates the very system that assigns the order of victims to begin with, and thus seems to divide the guilty from the innocent, and the "socially valuable" from the "socially dangerous." Capital due process is a mechanism for the exorcism of what Lifton calls the "death taint." It does so literally (in the form of its differential impact upon already socially vulnerable populations) and symbolically (by its attempt to locate and contain urban decay, male violence, racial tension, and economic stratification within those various particular and pathologized bodies earmarked by the state for destruction). In this way Karla Faye Tucker is one of many possible objects of false witness. And this, perhaps, says nothing about her in her particularity. Had the State of Texas executed Henry Lee Lucas then he, too, would have been the object of this kind of false witness.
  35. Karla Faye Tucker, however, was the object of a more specific form of false witness. That is, she suffered a rhetorical obliteration during the controversy attending the lead-up to her execution, and that rhetorical destruction was aimed at the woman she once had been (or, more properly, the type of woman she once had been). The fifteen years between the killings and the execution were not only marked by Tucker's conversion, but also (and more importantly for the mechanism of false witness) by a profoundly conservative shift in the political sphere. The moral politics of neo-conservatism sought to clarify a traditional opposition between public and private realms by a whole set of linked discursive strategies. One of these was the plea--couched in the rhetoric of neo-maternalism--for women to get back to the home. (Materially underlying that plea were welfare cuts, the abandonment of anti-discrimination policies, and the continuing disparity of men's and women's wages.) And increasingly bipartisan law-and-order platforms focused on crimes in the public realm (at the expense of continuing high levels of domestic violence) and the restitution of "public order" policing. The focus in law-and-order discourse on gang violence, stranger killing, drug crimes, and the "problem" of recidivism made certain public spaces, certain communities, certain classes or groups of persons the a priori markers of dangerousness. These "others" were those most likely to offend; they were souls beyond saving, the always already guilty suspect--those circumstantially, and by inheritance, doomed. The rewriting of the realms of public and private taking place under the sign of neo-maternalism and law-and-order discourse effectively re-articulated a commonsensical (and not inconsequentially gendered) binary opposition of the public to the private.
  36. The ideological work of false witness in the cases of Tucker and Lucas operates around this demarcation of the public and the private, or around what counts as--or for--the social. In his discussion of serial killing as a "situated practice" in the postmodern social, Jon Stratton suggests that the supposed "motivelessness" of such killing acts out on the individual level the greater social drama of the loss--in postmodernity--of the possibility of anomie; normlessness only becomes possible to the extent that there are normative values to begin with. But what the discourse of the "motivelessness" of serial killing elides is the transition of the personal or individual motive to the social motive--and the social scene--of killing.[18] This social scene includes scenes not normally associated with the actual scene of killing. In a culture of spectacle the serial killer "gains his meaning because his attack is not on his individual victims but on the audience who make up the membership of the social" (Stratton 96). The serial killer manufactures display (the bodies turned inside-out and left in public or semi-public spaces) and is manufactured as display (the fame and infamy of the serial killer). Both Stratton and Mark Seltzer therefore use the figure of the serial killer as a discursive crux in which the individual, the private, and the interior become social, public, and exterior. Their critiques are useful for situating the discourse of serial killing in wider cultural and historical frames.[19] Their analysis enables us to understand the survival (literally and figuratively) of Henry Lee Lucas and, contradictorily, the elimination of Karla Faye Tucker.
  37. Henry Lee Lucas's confessions were refined distillations of an established sub-genre of serial killing. The techniques he claimed to have used varied, but their aim did not. He described brutal damages. His victims were supposedly the usual misplaced, missing, or unwanted figures--the socially marginal: prostitutes, runaways, hitch-hikers. The scenes of murder he described included the deserted semi-public spaces of what Seltzer terms the "pathological public sphere" and the ad hoc private of motels and car interiors (transience temporarily stilled). And in Lucas's confessions the occasional imputed witness kept a silence that could only be taken as evidence of social dislocation (for so many killings, how could no one have seen?).
  38. The total effect of Lucas's confessions, then, was to submit to closer scrutiny a depressingly familiar portrait of the postmodern killing scene. Lucas's confessions were credible precisely to the extent that they conformed to the commonsensical. The confessions (and the 213 cases cleared because of them) made--ironically--for a supportable accounting of death. In this way the figurative dead in Lucas's false confessions transmuted bureaucratically into 213 actual dead, and the cleared cases represent the nominal sum of "designated victims" for this particular case of false witness. This is not to confuse false confession and false witness. Lucas lied, but the bureaucratic depth of belief for his lies, and the popular market for them, defines the point at which the effect of false confession leaves off and the ideological work of false witness begins. The kinds of crimes described, the kinds of victims, and even the killer (self-selected to type) went together handily to portray a set of pre-eminently public crimes.
  39. Lucas's invented crimes policed the margins of a tame, familiar, and entirely figurative public sphere by defining the pathological public sphere supposedly anterior to it. His inventions intersected conveniently with a list of actual dead, and his claim to authorship of the killings gave an acceptable discursive clothing to the unnamed, partly naked bodies of the women, children, and young men that turned up (and continue to turn up) in the vacant lots, roadsides, abandoned buildings, and dumpsters that mark the borders of habitable America. The rewriting of these 213 deaths under the putative authorship of Lucas severs their last ties with place, with domesticity, privacy, and, often, their very names, as the name of the victim is obliterated by the more famous name of the killer. The victims become "lost," "abandoned," "abducted" or "runaway"; the prey of one who is himself the embodiment of social dislocation--drifter, drinker, loner, killer. For the 213 people supposedly killed by Lucas there can be no imputation of death's grim domesticity: no death from spousal violence; no death caused by the malice or lack of care of friends and relatives; no death due to simple robbery with violence. The many possible fatal risks endemic to private life vanish from the historical record.
  40. In this way, Lucas's legendary brutality has a productive side. The events engendered by his false confessions produce an image of violent, inexplicable deaths. Lucas's killings are exceptionalized and abstracted into the realm of awful chance; they are deaths for which rare evil, monstrosity, or madness are supposedly responsible. Lucas's confessions discount the social and, in that sense, do a very good job of what Lifton describes as "false witness." The death taint is displaced onto the pre-eminent human agent of death--the serial killer--and by the "inexplicable" and terrifying deaths of the victims accounted to him. That is why it is not surprising that Lucas himself survived death row when others before him have not. That, also, is why the myth of Lucas (as a template of serial killing) survives--even in the face of the facts that contradict it. Although proven not to have been the itinerant drifter killer, the figure of the killer he performed so effectively remains important. The splitting of the mythological Lucas (serial-killer author of the discounted dead) from Lucas the legal subject (the lying non-entity whose death sentence was commuted) leaves the myth of the crime and the necessary fiction of the serial killer intact.[20]
  41. As I've already suggested, the ideological work of false witness in the case of Karla Faye Tucker is quite different. Tucker's first confession (to sexual enjoyment of the murders) breached the fragile container of a gendered realm of the private. That is, her narrative of sex and violence radically destabilized even the traditional explanatory frameworks for female violence. By confessing to sexual enjoyment of the murders Tucker gave up the chance to obscure her own agency and thereby skirt criminal responsibility. Had she called upon the available templates for female monstrosity (claiming that she'd been a victim of Garrett's will, or, perhaps, merely his collaborator) Tucker might have been able to find shelter temporarily under the warped chivalry of the law. As an exemplar of an already statistically and theoretically problematic category (the woman who kills strangers), Tucker became even more exceptionalized by her "free" confession to sexual sadism. Tucker transgressed Reaganite America's bitterly defended and heavily gendered constructions of the public-private divide by exceeding even the available categories of female monstrosity, thereby sparking a debate about the socially degenerative effects of feminism: a.k.a. the "new trend" in female violence. Her later repentance managed only to compound that transgression (the bodily bequest of sin that she is not allowed to shed).
  42. Years after the crime and the trial, the impact of that transgression still makes itself felt in the (often sympathetic) media coverage of the lead-up to her execution. One writer described her as "charismatic and beautiful"--a description that seemingly looks to the repentant, refeminized Tucker. But in the very next sentence the writer relocates those characteristics in the endless present of her crime: "even when she was high she was charismatic. She always said she was going to be famous" (Dudman 20). The crime begets the execution, her fame secured by both (as if, all along, that had been her intent). It is not Tucker's conversion that, ultimately, "makes the difference." The ideological work of false witness proceeds, in Tucker's case, by means of a symbolically violent rewriting of the femininity she disavowed with her early confession to sexual sadism. All the uncertainty about what kind of woman she was/is (penitent sinner, self-interested fake) falls away at the moment of her death. The specter of the whore and the sadist is sundered--the possibly penitent spirit is liberated and the desired innocence of femininity restored. We can see this transformation discursively enacted in the coverage of the execution: "One guard gently pulled back her flowing curly brown hair so it dangled over the table's edge. He then lowered the microphone to Karla's face. [She] smiled as she spoke her last words" (Dudman 17). Tellingly here the text is capped with a photo of Tucker surrounded by her doll collection. We are made to recognize less of the penitent (though elements of Christian forbearance and grace are clearly discernible) and more of Tucker's purged femininity--her dolls and Shirley Temple curls.[21]
  43. In Tucker's case the action of false witness works to obliterate the traces and markings of an untenable femininity: untenable because of its violence, its sexual sadism, and the immutability of the female flesh that witnessed to the sin. On a larger level, the rhetorical annihilation of Karla Faye Tucker (or, perhaps, her transfiguration) arises from its times. It arises from a neo-conservative era informed by a grassroots fundamentalism that holds the theological premise of equality before God of all the penitent, while also propagating an exclusionary politics that attempts to forge a community of strict identity, intolerant of difference (despite the very idea of difference at the heart of an epistemology of conversion).[22] Tucker's annihilation was at least partly the result of neo-maternalism's discursive push toward a more conservative femininity. And her rhetorical annihilation was the consequence of a law-and-order discourse that figures the private as embattled sanctuary for the law-abiding and proscribes public-order crime and "predation."
  44. In both Lucas's confessions and Janice Knowlton's testimony to violence, witnessed interpersonal violence is relocated into the realm of impersonal violence--the private in the public, the banal in the rare. Behind both body-counts (Knowlton's not less significant than Lucas's) should stand a whole set of killers, not just the ascribed murderous "One." Like the commodified, "talked-up" confessions of cruelty witnessed to by true crime and talk-show culture, both these violent narratives (and the slightly different story of Karla Faye Tucker) take part in the larger strategy of law-and-order discourse in seeking the strange face of a tiresomely familiar violence. Monstrous, evil and multiple killers give an ironically acceptable handle to the unwieldy, ordinary, and routine sufferings of private lives transferred, discursively, to the public account. And that is the consequence of a larger cultural trend in false witness--to displace the scene and the site of violence, and to continually police what counts as the social.
  45. Humanities Group, School of Cultural Inquiry
    University of Western Sydney

    Talk Back




    1. Take the story of one Texas trial judge who, on reviewing an appellant's claim for relief on the basis of incompetent counsel (the defense attorney slept through much of the trial), said, "The constitution says everyone is entitled to the attorney of their choice. The constitution does not say the lawyer has to be awake." (That nice sense of irony condemned a man to death.) Justice Doug Shaver, quoted in "United States of America: Death Penalty in Texas: Lethal Injustice" (13).

    2. See "The Lucas Case," The Washington Post 22 June 1998: A20.

    3. According to the former Attorney General of Texas, Jim Mattox, evidence had come to hand proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lucas had been over a thousand miles away from Texas on the day that the murder he'd confessed to had occurred. The only thing linking Lucas to the "Orange Socks" murder was, essentially, his confession, and that confession had been but one among up to 600 spurious others. It was the 213 cases that were documented and "cleared" by the process of his false and spurious confessions that most concerned the writers of the "Lucas Report," a report commissioned by the Texas Attorney General's office that raised doubts about Lucas's guilt for many of his confessed crimes.

    4. It might be said that the difference between 10 (the number of murders conservatively credited to Lucas) and 360 is moot in terms of the prevailing definition of serial killing: more than 3 persons killed with a "cooling off" period between the crimes. Some critics have argued, however, that only the first killing attributed to Lucas is sufficiently documented. But the issue in question is not so much whether Lucas qualifies as a serial killer in these terms, but the way in which his infamy is in strict proportion both to his own narrative of excess and the degree to which his excessive violence was credited as true.

    5. The body of this Jane Doe was found under an overpass of I-95. The corpse was clad only in a pair of orange socks, thus the name.

    6. As becomes apparent in Philip Jenkins's discussion of the then widely quoted figures for victimization by serial killers, Lucas's then accepted kill ratio accounts for exactly 10% of the total figure. Is this symmetry coincidental? I don't think so. 3,600 was the figure quoted repeatedly by the 1983 "Specter" Committee (Juvenile Justice Sub-Committee of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate) and it was the 360 figure that got popular attention for Lucas. See Philip Jenkins, Using Murder (64-66).

    7. Toole died in Florida while serving five life sentences. One of the most famous of the scores of murders his name had become associated with (not only by virtue of his confessions) was that of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, whose parents later were instrumental in the setting up of the massively influential National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Toole later denied killing Walsh, although Lucas still firmly insists that his friend was responsible for that killing.

    8. There is a small but significant scholarship on the question of the ethics of police interrogation procedures. In these, the question of false confession is considered in relation to the conviction and punishment of innocent persons. See Richard A. Leo and Richard J. Ofshe's "The Consequence of False Confessions: Deprivations of Liberty and Miscarriages of Justice in the Age of Psychological Interrogation" for a strong critique of police procedure and an exhaustive tallying of the cases of likely extorted confession. For a law-and-order perspective on the question of police procedure and the "risks" of extorted confession, see Paul Cassell, "Protecting the Innocent from False Confessions and Lost Confessions--And from Miranda." From the perspective of forensic medicine, see Mark Powlson, "Psychology of False Confessions" and "Guilty Innocents: the Road to False Confessions." While Lucas's confessions should be taken--in part--as a cautionary tale for police procedure, it is the authoritative standing of those confessions that concerns me here. Lucas was taken as saying something meaningful about serial killing. His "confessions" have a cultural valence in excess of the narrative of individual responsibility and guilt generated by the other cases of extorted or coaxed confessions that Ofshe and Leo consider.

    9. On January 15, 1947 Elizabeth Short's bisected body was discovered in a vacant lot overgrown with weeds on Norton Avenue, Los Angeles. Short had been a good-looking woman, and had worked a few bit parts in Hollywood productions. Both the brutality of the killing and the aura of the exotic surrounding this young, "beautiful" victim (dubbed "The Black Dahlia") created a sensation of the case relatively quickly. The failure to close the case has merely maintained its notoriety.

    10. Just an example of the questionable factual base to the narrative: Knowlton tells the story of Elizabeth Short's murder as occurring just a few hours after Short had miscarried with Knowlton's father's child. It seems likely that such an event would have left postmortem evidence, but nothing to this effect appears in the autopsy report that Knowlton handily reproduces in full earlier in the book.

    11. Herman's argument for the personal and ideological necessity of "remembering and telling the truth about terrible events" must be read in the context of her work--which is exclusively about the damage done by trauma to its survivors.

    12. "The enemy was cruel, it was clear, yet this did not trouble me as deeply as did our own cruelty" (Gray 513). For an analysis of the troubled question of agency and constructions of the traumatized veteran, see Allan Young's The Harmony of Illusions.

    13. Interestingly, Alford suggests that one of the competing leading images of evil for our times is the serial killer.

    14. Rappaport suggests that Tucker's case had attracted the capital sentence, and was unlikely to dislodge it, because of the aggravated cruelty and the sexual element to the crime. On the sexualization of female violent crime and murder in particular ("lust-killing"), see Candace Skrapec's "The Female Serial Killer: an Evolving Crimininality."

    15. That radical desertion by one (less famous) member of a pair of killers is echoed by the death of Ottis Toole, also on death row, and also of liver disease.

    16. Added punishment was, after all, the aim of the eighteenth century practice of gibbeting, and--during the nineteenth century--the making available of the cadaver of the executed for anatomical study. In the twentieth century, the added burden placed upon the condemned was transferred to those who are symbolically and socially dead, the "lifer" (who, for instance, might elicit the favor of the authorities by volunteering for dangerous drug trials).

    17. In 1986 George McCleskey, a death row inmate, "petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court with a claim that the Georgia capital statutes were applied in a 'racially discriminatory fashion.'" For an in-depth discussion of the racially discriminatory nature of capital due process see my Murder: A Tale of Modern American Life (69-72, 145-149).

    18. "Where the modern serial killer aided in the production of the social, the postmodern serial killer takes the social for granted and acts on it as a reification. This development is reinforced by two interconnected things. On the one hand the gradual breakdown of the moral consensus which underpinned the modern social and the corresponding normalization of the experience of anomie and, on the other hand, the shift towards the society of the spectacle" (Stratton 84).

    19. Although both of them inadvertently reinscribe the very categories they are in fact critiquing--reconstituting the social construction of the serial killer that Philip Jenkins so systematically dissects in his Using Murder.

    20. A wrongful execution might well have caused more controversy than that productive split could withstand.

    21. Ironically, while Tucker is discursively obliterated by the action of the earlier confession to sexual sadism contradictory of any socially acceptable model of the feminine, at the actual moment of her annihilation she is rehabilitated by being returned to a moment prior to that confession.

    22. This epistemology of difference is explored in Robert Duvall's recent film, The Apostle. In this, the central character, who is a father of an established fundamentalist church, kills the boyfriend of his ex-wife in a rage of jealousy and frustration. He flees the state and, after not much soul-searching, sets up a new Church in the area where he has settled. While the film maintains a careful distance and refrains from judging the main character, it is significant that he is buoyed and driven by faith throughout the film. Although, finally, he does not dodge responsibility for the crime, the whole portrait of "the apostle" stresses the continuity, and the strength, of his faith: the durability of his call. The immorality of his act thereby takes second place to his tireless work for the Lord. Of course, there is no point of conversion in the film. The central character is buoyed by Christ from his early childhood. But I would argue that his ability to embody, without too much discomfort, the contradictions of sin and tireless service to the Lord, hinges upon his masculinity (and the gendered nature of his crime) more than upon fact that he is not a repentant sinner and a convert (converted sinners embody most starkly the epistemology of difference: they carry within them, at all times, the person that was--the sin defines the degree of faith). The contrition of the major character in The Apostle is tenable because, unlike Karla Faye Tucker's, his social transgression has not been great.

    Works Cited

    Alford, C. Fred. What Evil Means to Us. London: Cornell UP, 1997.

    Antze, Paul and Michael Lambek, eds. Tense Past: Cultural Essays of Trauma and Memory. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Cassell, Paul. "Protecting the Innocent from False Confessions and Lost Confessions--And from Miranda." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (Winter 1998): 497-556.

    Caruth, Cathy. "Interview with Robert Jay Lifton." Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 128-147.

    Dudman, Graham. "The Life that Drove Her to Death." New Weekly 16 Feb. 1998: 20.

    Ellroy, James. My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996.

    Gray, J. Glenn. "On Killing." Crimes of War. Ed. Richard Falk, et al. New York: Random House, 1971.

    Hylton, Hilary. "Texas Board: Killer's Life should be Spared." Houston Post 25 Jun. 1998: 1A.

    "International Appeals to Spare Tucker Fail." CNN Online 3 Feb. 1998. 25 Mar. 1999 <>.

    Jenkins, Philip. Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1994.

    King, Florence. "The Misanthrope's Corner." National Review 50.4 (9 Mar. 1998): 72.

    Knowlton, Janice and Michael Newtown. Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.

    Knox, Sara L. Murder: A Tale of Modern American Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998.

    Laub, Dori. "Truth and Testimony." Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1995. 61-75.

    Leo, Richard A., and Richard J. Ofshe. "The Consequence of False Confessions: Deprivations of Liberty and Miscarriages of Justice in the Age of Psychological Interrogation." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (Winter 1998): 429-496.

    Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. London: Abacus, 1995.

    Leys, Ruth. "Traumatic Cures : Shell-Shock, Janet and the Question of Memory." Tense Past: Cultural Essays of Trauma and Memory. Ed. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek. New York: Routledge, 1998. 103-145.

    "The Lucas Case." The Washington Post 22 Jun. 1998: A20.

    Pagel, Jean. "Lucas Tearfully Denies Slaying that Landed Him on Death Row." Houston Chronicle 9 Jan. 1996. 24 Mar. 1999 <

    Pedersen, Daniel. "Lies of a Serial Killer." Newsweek 22 Jun. 1998: 64.

    Powlson, Mark. "Guilty Innocents: The Road to False Confessions." Lancet 26 Nov. 1994: 1447-1450.

    ---. "Psychology of False Confessions." Lancet 2 Nov. 1991: 1136.

    Pressley, Sue Ann. "Executioner awaits for Henry Lee Lucas, criminal superstar of '80s." Detroit News Online 2 Oct. 1995. 25 Mar. 1999 <>.

    Rappaport, Elizabeth. "Some Questions about Gender and the Death Penalty." Golden Gate University Law Review 27 (1990/91): 501-565.

    Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Skrapec, Candace. "The Female Serial Killer: An Evolving Criminality." Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation. Ed. Helen Birch. London: Virago, 1993.

    Stratton, Jon. "Serial Killing and the Transformation of the Social." Theory, Culture and Society 13.1 (1996): 77-98.

    Tal, Kali. Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literature of Trauma. New York: Cambridge, 1996.

    Thurman, Sam. "No Evidence Lucas Murdered Woman." Letter. Amarillo Globe-News Online 25 Jun. 1998. 24 Mar. 1999 <>.

    Tithecott, Richard. Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.

    "United States of America: Death Penalty in Texas: Lethal Injustice." Amnesty International Report 3 Jan. 1998 <>.

    Young, Allan. The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995.

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