But this is Texas.
And so the word applied to Karla Faye Tucker, who is two weeks away from becoming the first woman to be executed in this state since the Civil War, remains lady.
Somehow, people here just can't quite connect the image of the butchered victims with that of the tiny, wide-eyed Tucker.
``To a real Texan, women are fragile. They are handled with loving care,'' said Lucile Plane, a former warden at the women's prison here, where Tucker is being held as her Feb. 3 date for lethal injection approaches.
Plane describes herself as an unflinching proponent of capital punishment. But she is also a real Texan.
``We do not,'' she said, ``exterminate our women.''
Tucker, 38, has only a few more days to ask the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute her sentence. As of yesterday, Gov. George W. Bush's office had received 1,158 letters about her case. The vast majority appealed for clemency.
Meanwhile, the state Criminal Justice Department is receiving about 100 requests a day from television stations and newspapers around the world that want an interview with Tucker. By comparison, it received only one request concerning either of the two men set to be executed last week; both of those executions were postponed.
With her date fast approaching, Tucker turns down nearly all of those interview requests, mostly choosing nationally televised shows to air her story of a life of drug addiction and crime that has been redeemed, she maintains, by a jailhouse conversion to Christianity.
It is a message that plays well here in the Texas Hill Country, where steeples dot the landscape and where women - ladies, that is - are addressed as ma'am.
``Karla Faye Tucker is cute and she's soft-spoken and her eyes are gorgeous,'' said Victor Streib, dean of the law school at Ohio Northern University, who does research on women and the death penalty. ``And I've heard lots of statements from Texans about how well they treat their women. They may claim to treat them the same, but that's just bull.''
* Texas executes men. Lots of them.
Last year, the 37 men executed in Texas accounted for half the nation's 74 executions.
Since the death penalty was reinstated nationally in 1976, Texas has executed 144 men. Twenty-eight other states executed a total of 288 inmates. Of those executed, only one - Velma Barfield, in North Carolina in 1984 - was a woman.
Between 1909 and 1962, only 38 women were put to death in the United States. But one must go back even further than that, to 1863, for the last time Texas killed a woman - Chipita Rodriguez, for murdering a horse trader.
``There are less women committing crimes,'' Streib said. ``But still - 1863? Give me a break.''
It's not as though Texans are squeamish about slapping female murderers with the death penalty. Of the 47 women on death row in 15 states, only California has more.
Eight women face capital punishment there, as do seven in Texas. But Streib said the likelihood of any of them being executed was minuscule. His research shows that although women account for 13 percent of murder arrests, they receive only 2 percent of death sentences. And only 0.2 percent - one in 432 - is executed.
``The reversal rate [on appeal] for women is so very high that it's kind of off the scale,'' Streib said. That can't be attributed to laws anymore, given the way that gender inequities are being removed at both the federal and state levels, he said, which means ``the research all comes down to finding that there's a high reluctance to execute women.''
``It's the kind of attitude that may be exemplified all the way from women and children first on lifeboats, to my mother telling me when I was a little kid not to hit girls.''
* Back in 1983, Karla Faye Tucker didn't have scruples about hitting anyone. She and her boyfriend, strung out on drugs, sneaked into the Houston home of Jerry Lynn Dean, an acquaintance they planned to rob. Unbeknownst to them, Dean was not alone.
Deborah Thornton had had a fight with her husband that night and stormed off to a party. She met Dean there and went home with him. Thornton woke to a nightmarish scenario - the sight of the petite Tucker swinging a pickax into the sleeping Dean.
She pleaded with Tucker, not for life, but to die fast. But she didn't. It took several blows to finish her off, and when her killers left, the ax was still in her chest.
Richard Thornton, her husband, recalled the moment he heard the news:
`` `This couldn't be her,' you say to yourself. Then you remember what a pickax is and you are sure of it; there is no way, they must have misspoken,'' Thornton wrote in a letter he posted on the Internet with the help of a Houston-based anticrime group, Justice for All.
``I think the jury answered the same question the parole board must now ask itself,'' said Dianne Clements, who founded the group in 1993 after her 13-year-old son, Zachary, was shot to death.
``And that question is, `Do we absolutely believe that Karla Faye Tucker is not of future dangerousness?' I don't believe we can answer that in our heart of hearts without saying yes.''
But Tucker says that she's not, that in the 14 years since the crime - during which time she married a prison minister - she has turned her life around with the help of God.
That's why, she says, her life should be spared. Not because she's a woman. (Her onetime boyfriend, Daniel Garrett, also was sentenced to death but died in prison in 1993.)
``If we believe religious conversion is a reason, we might as well get rid of the death penalty,'' Clements said, ``because every individual sentenced to death will have a religious conversion.''
Here in Gatesville, where Tucker sits in a cell just a few miles away, a gentler view prevails.
``She'd been using drugs since she was 7 or 8,'' said Becky Necessary, leaning back in one of the big chairs at the Vogue beauty parlor. ``She was into prostitution at, oh Lordy, such a young, young age. Why didn't somebody try to help her?''
``I think she's sincere,'' added Connie, a stylist who volunteered no last name. ``They should've done this [executed Tucker] a couple of years after the crime. But, like she said, she'd have gone to hell then.''
Plane, the retired warden, agrees. Now 83, she ran the nearby prison, a collection of low brick buildings on sandy soil, for a decade, when the number of women there exploded from 600 to more than 5,000.
Tucker, she said, has been an exemplary convict, educating herself, converting to Christianity, and serving as a role model for the other women on death row.
``If they had executed her within three years, I believe justice would have been served,'' Plane said. ``But now, if I had to make a judgment call, I'd vote for clemency. I believe she has had a true turnaround. She never denied what she did, but now she is living under grace.''
* It's not really up to Bush to pardon Tucker.
``There are no midnight telephone calls in Texas,'' said the governor's spokeswoman, Debbi Head.
Instead, Tucker's lawyers, George Secrest and David Botsford, asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday to block her execution, and said they would formally ask the state parole board to have the sentence commuted. The board is expected to decide the issue within five or six days of the petition, then make a recommendation to the governor, said Larry Todd, spokesman for the Texas Criminal Justice Department.
Commutations are rare, delays less so. But, with the U.S. Supreme Court having rejected her request for an appeal last month, Tucker has exhausted her options for delay.
If she is indeed executed in two weeks, ``her sentence will be carried out with dignity and decorum and professionalism,'' Todd said.
Many people feel that, despite strong public sentiment against it, Tucker will die. They reason that Texas, having executed all those men, will look bad if it spares a woman, especially one convicted of such a violent, wanton crime.
But many of those people don't live in Texas.
Mario Medina does. Medina, owner of Central Texas Custom Boots in Gatesville, blanched as he recalled the details of the killing. Surrounded by $1,200 handmade ostrich- and anteater-skin cowboy boots, he started to speak several times, then stopped.
Finally, he said slowly: ``Maybe she's got some reasons to do that, and we'll never know. Sometimes, women take a different trail.
``But she is a woman. And we have a lot of respect for women here.''