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Monday, Feb. 2, 1998

Chipita's execution haunts local memory

Questions linger in 1863 San Pat hanging, the last time a woman was executed in Texas

Scripps Howard Austin Bureau

   It has been 134 years since Texas executed a woman.
   That could change Tuesday.
   That's the day Karla Faye Tucker is scheduled to become the first woman legally executed in Texas since Chipita Rodriguez was hanged on a Friday the 13th in 1863.
   A death sentence is one of the few things the two women have in common. That and the fact they were both found guilty of using an ax to kill a man during a robbery.
   But Tucker's impending execution has drawn new attention to Rodriguez's case as some of Tucker's supporters try to compare the two women.
   ``It brings to mind the only other woman executed in Texas and her unique absolution nearly 100 years after her hanging,'' said Genevieve Hearton, a trustee at the Travis County MHMR Center.
   Texas legislators voted on the 100th anniversary of Rodriguez's death for a resolution stating that she did not receive a fair trial.
   Rodriguez reportedly said little after they arrested her. She only spoke in Spanish saying ``No soy culpable,'' which means, ``I am not guilty.''
   Since then, Chipita Rodriguez has become a legend. Reported sightings of her ghost along the Aransas River where she was hanged began in the 1930s.
   A Galveston woman made her the heroine of an epic poem. Books and newspaper articles were written about her life and death. And in 1993, the University of Texas music department performed the opera, ``Chipita Rodriguez,'' composed by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi professor Lawrence Weiner.
   While there are sparse similarities between Rodriguez and Tucker, there are many differences.
   Rodriguez, the story goes, was after 600 pieces of gold. For Tucker, it was motorcycle parts.
   Rodriguez was an old woman when she was alleged to have committed her crime. Tucker was a woman in her 20s.
   Rodriguez maintained her innocence. Tucker admits her guilt.
   Rodriguez was hanged from a mesquite tree. Tucker faces lethal injection.
   But with more than a century separating their deaths, the names of the two women have become entwined in Texas history.
   As the time approaches for Tucker's execution, much attention is being focused on the tiny town of San Patricio and its 369 residents who know the story of Rodriguez's death.
   San Patricio Mayor Lonnie Glasscock III has fielded dozens of media calls in recent weeks, as well as doing interviews with a German investigative news team.
   He has regaled them with stories that keep Rodriguez's legend alive.
   ``A few years ago, some people wandered around and swore they saw Chipita's ghost riding the hood of their car,'' Glasscock said. ``There's definitely still a superstition about it.''
   Now, more similarities between the two women become apparent.
   In both cases, their death sentences generated heated debate among Texans as pleas for mercy overwhelmed state officials.
   Even today, San Patricio County residents argue over the guilt or innocence of their most famous criminal.
   It's a debate that has continued since the day Rodriguez was sentenced and a questioning jury asked an unrelenting judge to spare her life.
   Now Karla Faye Tucker faces a similar fate.
   Hundreds of people from across the world have asked the state of Texas to grant clemency. They argue that she has changed, and nothing good will come from her execution.
   More than 100 years ago, a jury recommended leniency for Rodriguez. But the judge sentenced her to die.
   Rodriguez ran a small inn on the banks of the Aransas River where horse trader John Savage stopped in 1863. As he unpacked his horse, $600 in gold that filled his saddlebags jingled loudly.
   His body was later found stuffed in gunny sacks in the Aransas River. He was killed by an ax.
   Prosecutors said the motive was robbery, even though the dead man's saddlebags were found full of gold in the river.
   Rodriguez was indicted with Juan Silvera, a retarded man who worked for her and was sentenced to five years of hard labor after he was found guilty of assisting in the man's death.
   Rodriguez denied committing the crime but refused to talk, even at her trial.
   Many San Patricio residents didn't believe she killed the horse trader.
   ``She was protecting someone else. All she ever said in the trial was `not guilty,' '' said Keith Guthrie, a San Patricio County historian. ``People said it was an illegitimate son who actually did the ax work.''
   Women in the city were aghast that Rodriguez had been sentenced to death.
   ``Chipita was hung in my great-grandmother's wedding dress,'' Geraldine McGloin of Corpus Christi told the Caller-Times in 1997. ``She didn't have a decent dress for her hanging, which was really pretty grisly. And my great-grandmother gave her wedding dress for her hanging.''
   ~San Patricio residents claim that the reason Rodriguez's ghost roams the river where she was hanged is that she should not have been put to death.
   ``The river was the only place with a tree big enough to do the job,'' Glasscock said. ``So they just buried her right there, which was apparently a big no-no. People say her soul will forever be in limbo because she wasn't buried in the cemetery.
   ``Now her ghost will forever wander.''
   Tucker supporters and death penalty critics say if Karla Faye Tucker is executed, her death will haunt Texans much more than the elusive ghost of the state's last executed woman.
   In 1995, state Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, and state Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, tried to clear Rodriguez's name by passing a resolution through the Legislature noting that Rodriguez did not receive a fair trial.
   No one is trying to clear Tucker's name.
   Instead, supporters say, if jurors had known Tucker would turn her life around, they would have put her in prison for life instead of taking her life by lethal injection.
   ``It should not take a hundred years for Texas to recognize that Karla Faye's Tucker's (change) is unique and that her life should be spared,'' said Hearton, the MHMR trustee.
   Scripps Howard Austin Bureau staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.

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