HER PECULIAR LITTLE PERSON was all contradiction. She was sunny and nice, and she gave you the creeps. She was an innocent who was a guilty criminal. She was evil, and she was embraced by religious leaders who declared she was good. If any crime deserved the death penalty, hers did. Yet the world was outraged when Texas executed her this past February. Karla Faye Tucker forced the issue of capital punishment as no one has in years.

On June 13, 1983, Tucker and a male accomplice sneaked into a Houston apartment and, for no real reason, murdered a man and a woman with a pickax. Each victim suffered more than twenty blows. Tucker continued to hack at her victims long after they were dead and left the pickax sticking out of the woman’s chest. Hardened police officers were haunted for years afterward by the carnage. Far from repentant at the time, Tucker might not have been caught except she and her partner could not help bragging to their low-life friends about what they had done.

Convicted and sentenced to death at age 24, she was sent to live on the women’s death row in 1984. Soon enough the haze of drugs and sex that had defined her teenage years cleared. In her right mind for the first time in her adult life, she found Christ through a prison ministry and put herself to good works, such as they were available. She even married a minister, though the two were always separated by a pane of Plexiglas. The religious community that embraced Tucker never doubted her sincerity, but others wondered whether she saw her belief in God as her best chance for earthly salvation.

As the February 3 execution date neared, the world focused its attention on Tucker. The European Union’s Parliament passed a resolution asking that her sentence be commuted. At home, Pat Robertson, a man not known for his liberalism, pleaded for her life. Demonstrations and vigils attracted hundreds of protesters and spectators; the typical death row watch draws handfuls. And then she was executed, and the frenzy faded. The committed opponents of the death penalty remained committed, while the rest of the world went on, apparently unchanged.

But for a few weeks, our society was focused on one of the most emotional and difficult philosophical questions. Can redemption be real? If so, then what? The many around the world who protested believed that Tucker had been redeemed and that her life should be spared, but that belief has no standing in a courtroom. Karla Faye Tucker forced the law and spirituality to confront each other and us to confront them both.