Excluding the Superbowl, it was America's most talked-about live event of the winter. Supporters cheered and opponents jeered as a bevy of camera crews jostled for the best position to catch the action. Meanwhile, in the studios, television anchors brought the nation the latest news and grilled panels of commentators for analysis. Finally, at around 6.45pm local time on Tuesday, we had a result: Karla Faye Tucker was dead. The 'action', involving the execution of only the second woman this century, was in fact limited to the comings and goings outside the penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, and not caught on camera in the lethal injection room. For now, the country had to content itself with the graphic description - by journalists invited to watch the execution - of Tucker's last couple of minutes on Texan soil. But it can only be a matter of time before a news outlet wins itself the right to bring the action right into our living rooms. After the 74 convicted murderers put to death in the US last year - the largest total in 20 years - Tucker's execution should by rights have been just another blip on the screen. But the made-for-TV movie qualities of her story - wanton pick-axe killer turns born-again Christian, finds redemption, marries a minister and pleads for forgiveness - gave her case a 'Dead Woman Walking' angle the media could not resist. According to Ohio University professor Victor Streib, 'if Tucker were an ugly black male Muslim, no one would take much notice'. While this assertion is difficult to contradict, simply being a woman did not seem enough to grip the nation's attention. It has not been widely noted that two years ago, an Illinois woman, Guinivere Garcia, was granted a pardon only 10 hours before execution - strangely enough, against her will. This case garnered little attention outside the state, apart from a discussion on domestic violence (Garcia shot her abusive husband during an argument). It is likely that had Tucker not presented such a born-again persona to the TV cameras allowed in to interview her, and had she not had the nation's top TV evangelists calling for clemency, she would have died without becoming one of those intermittent death row inmates picked out - seemingly at random - by activists on both sides of the capital punishment issue to try to advance their cause. While her execution will not solve the argument either way, what it has done is once again expose the absurdities and inconsistencies of the death penalty system in the US. It has also made the nation confront its love-hate relationship with capital punishment, and yet again hash over the insoluble question of whether society should take an eye for an eye or turn the other cheek. The death penalty is the one human rights issue on which the US - the world's human rights policeman - finds itself vulnerable to attack from outside. Liberal western Europe finds it particularly shocking. But Americans are largely comfortable with that. While support for the death penalty was low in the halcyon days of the post-war boom, the explosion of violent crime in the 1970s saw a sea change in public opinion. There is no question that if the matter were put to a national referendum, most would vote to continue the practice. This vote will not happen, because the only issue is not whether it is morally wrong or right, but whether the Supreme Court judges it to be constitutional. Having declared capital punishment to be unjustifiable in the 60s, the court reversed its stance in 1976. Since then, 436 Americans have been executed - hardly a stampede. On the other hand, the only useful argument for the death penalty - that it is a deterrent to murder - was long ago consigned to the rubbish bin. Until recently, America's homicide rate was rocketing on the back of drug-dealing and urban poverty, and was only reversed due to tough new policing measures. Another major homicide situation - the domestic dispute - is an eternal human condition which might be alleviated by fewer guns, but certainly not by the prospect of the electric chair. Even though it bears little relation to the facts, support for the death penalty is also an absolute must for most politicians. The threat of an accusation that one is soft on crime is enough to swing the issue. This is why Texas Governor George Bush ignored pleas for clemency in the Tucker case and why then-governor Bill Clinton (the liberal, 60s-era protester) interrupted his presidential campaigning in 1992 to sign two execution orders. One major criticism of the death penalty is the legal labyrinth death row inmates pass through. Conservatives argue the system does not work because it is not properly enforced. The 74 prisoners executed in 1997, for example, are a tiny fraction of the more than 3,200 still on death row. The backlog of cases, brought about by an appeals process that on average lasts 10 years, costs the taxpayers millions of dollars and creates the image of a toothless death penalty system. The questionable deterrent factor becomes even weaker if there is a public perception that a death sentence means nothing of the sort. However, the legal maze is the process of reform, for better or worse. One of the Republican Congress' most significant pieces of legislation in recent years was a law which dramatically cut the time and legal avenues a condemned person has to appeal their fate, and this is leading to a surge of executions. However, the same law also shut down 20 publicly funded legal resource centres which were death row inmates' only source of legal representation. If, as is claimed, a large proportion of innocent men and women are wrongly convicted of capital crimes because they could not afford decent lawyer, then they can now expect less help in their appeals process too. In the Tucker case, a flawed system has at least shown itself to be egalitarian in being unforgiving. Not one of the 38 Texans executed in the past year received the chance of clemency, including the only one who was female, the darling of the Christian establishment, and - for the last few weeks of her sad life - one of the hottest interview subjects in America.