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  • The Productive Power of Confessions of Cruelty
  • Sara L. Knox

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.

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.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

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.

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...

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