- 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
The Making of a Serial Killer
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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. 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.
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.
Like Karla Faye Tucker, Henry Lee Lucas was taken into custody in 1983.
After his conviction in 1984 for the "Orange Socks" Murder, 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.
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:
This paragraph captures the gruesome élan of the serial
killer's excess, excess that Lucas was seen by many to exemplify.
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)
- 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. 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.
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).
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).
- 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. 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).
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.
- 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
Confession, Testimony and "False Witness"
- 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."
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
- 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, 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
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.
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
- 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. 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.) 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?
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:
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
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)
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). 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.
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:
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.
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)
Karla Faye Tucker
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
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.
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). 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
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
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.
- 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. 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
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:
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.
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.
The False Witness of Karla Faye Tucker
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.
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). 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.
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.
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.
- 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. 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. Their analysis enables us
to understand the survival (literally and figuratively) of Henry Lee
Lucas and, contradictorily, the elimination of Karla Faye Tucker.
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?).
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
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). 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
- 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
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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
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
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
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"
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
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.
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