In another life, Karla Faye Tucker was known as the Pickax Killer, a dissolute young woman who bragged to friends about the thrill of sending two people to their deaths. Since then, she says, she has been transformed -- by sobriety and her faith in God -- and if the state of Texas executes her on Feb. 3 as planned, it will be killing a different person entirely.

"Even though I did murder . . . that night and not think anything of it back then, it is now the one thing I regret most in my life," Tucker wrote last week in a plea to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. "And in the frame of mind I am in now, it is something that absolutely rips my guts out as I think about it."

The case of Tucker, 38, on Texas's death row for the past 14 years, encompasses the most serious debates surrounding mercy and punishment. It raises the question of whether rehabilitation should be considered in sparing the lives of condemned criminals, and it also goes to the heart of lingering societal attitudes about protecting women.

Tucker and her attorneys have said repeatedly that her sex should not be a consideration in halting her execution. But the fact that she is a woman is largely why her fate is receiving so much international attention and inspiring such heated argument. She would be the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War -- the state is the overwhelming national leader in executions with a record 37 men killed by lethal injection last year -- and only the second woman in the United States since the resumption of executions in 1976. Margie Velma Barfield, another born-again Christian who insisted she was a different person, was executed in North Carolina in 1984.

Forty-nine women (and 3,316 men) are on death row in this country, with about five of the women nearing execution dates this year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Opponents of the death penalty fear that if Tucker dies as scheduled, America's apparent reluctance to put women to death will lessen, and executions of women, like men, will become almost routine.

With her champions including Pat Robertson, the former presidential candidate and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network who usually supports capital punishment, Tucker's case has divided the religious right. It also has produced a potential political dilemma for Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), whose action, or inaction, in the case may haunt him if he runs for president, according to both supporters and opponents of Tucker's cause.

As it stands, Tucker has few avenues for saving her life: a petition filed with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that attacks the legality of the state's clemency process, and another petition filed with the state Board of Pardons and Paroles that asks that Tucker's sentence be commuted to life in prison -- something the board has not done in more than a decade. Ten of the 18 members of the board must agree on a recommendation to Bush, whose only independent authority is his ability to grant a 30-day stay of execution.

If her sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, Tucker would be eligible for parole in 2003, and in an effort to strengthen her plea to the Board of Pardons and Paroles last week, she offered to waive her right for early release. But parole officials responded that under the law she must be considered for parole when she becomes eligible, and Tucker's detractors insist that her offer is an empty gesture, a ploy in her ultimate goal -- to win complete freedom.

"It's all, Sweet Karla Faye, Miss Saint,' " said Richard Thornton, 48, whose wife, Deborah, was killed in the June 1983 attack in Houston, along with Jerry Lynn Dean. Thornton plans to witness Tucker's death on Feb. 3. "She is not wanting her life -- she wants back on the streets, in the bedroom with her husband."

The case has divided Deborah Thornton's family. Her brother, Ronald Carlson, 42, a machinist from Houston, said he believes in Tucker's transformation and has participated in rallies to protest her pending execution. Richard Thornton said Carlson recently tried to give him a letter of apology from Tucker, which Thornton refused to accept.

In recent televised interviews, Tucker has come across as sincere and remorseful, as someone, who in contrast to the required findings of her jury in 1984, no longer seems to present a danger to anyone. Backed by attorneys, and even former prosecutors and jail and prison personnel, she insists that her conversion is not a recent development, but began as she was awaiting trial nearly 14 years ago in the Harris County Jail. While on women's death row in Gatesville, Tex., she has continued her Bible studies, appeared in drug-education videos aimed at youths, and married Dana Brown, a prison-ministry worker, by proxy, in 1995.

"She may be the same physical person she was when the case was tried, but she is clearly not the same person," said one of her attorneys, David Botsford of Austin. "She is totally rehabilitated, and her prison record supports that. Our position is, she is not, quote, death-worthy. Her death would not serve any purpose other than pure capital vengeance."

A 7th-grade dropout, Tucker experienced a sordid early life that seemed programmed for disaster, according to court records and her own accounts. At the age of 8, she began smoking marijuana; by 10, she was shooting up heroin. Her mother allowed her to travel with the Allman Brothers Band on tour when she was 13, she said. After splitting up with her first husband, with whom she began living at 15, she began working as a prostitute.

Tucker met Danny Garrett -- who also received the death penalty for the slayings but died of a liver ailment in 1993 while awaiting a retrial -- through a doctor they both used to obtain illegal prescriptions. On the night of June 13, 1983, they decided to go to Dean's apartment, steal his motorcycle and possibly kill him. Tucker said she had not slept for three days and had ingested a wide array of drugs, including amphetamines, or speed. She also later admitted to conversations in which she, Garrett and others had discussed a spree of "offing" various people who ran drug labs.

Once inside Dean's apartment, Tucker and Dean began wrestling, and Garrett intervened and struck Dean over the head repeatedly with a hammer. Tucker testified that she wanted to stop Dean from making a "gurgling" noise and took a pickax and began hitting him in the back. She bragged to a friend later that she had "come with every stroke," or had orgasms, as she swung the pickax, but later said she had exaggerated to appear tough. Tucker then saw a figure cowering underneath some blankets, swung the pickax again, and struck Deborah Thornton, who had been estranged from her husband and staying with Dean, across the shoulder. Garrett intervened again, and Tucker said she saw him kill Thornton.

Tucker, who testified against Garrett in his trial, was tried only for the slaying of Dean.

In Texas, there is no commutation of a sentence "on humanitarian grounds," Botsford said. Last year, 16 of the 37 men who were eventually executed had requested commutation, and all were denied.

Bush has said he will treat the Tucker case as he does all death penalty cases, and his spokeswoman reiterated last week that he cannot commute a death sentence unless the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends it. The board has set a deadline of Feb. 2, the day before Tucker's scheduled execution, to report its recommendation.

"Governor Bush asks two questions in every death penalty case: Is there any question about the guilt of the individual, and have the courts had adequate opportunity to review all the legal issues involved?" said spokeswoman Karen Hughes, adding that Tucker's sex has no bearing on the case. "The gender of the murderer did not make any difference to the victims of the crime."

But death penalty opponents say Bush is in a political hot seat, as the nation watches the outcome. "He is facing a case everybody will be watching, not just people in Texas, who see all his political acts," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "This is something that will be a rather pertinent symbol of whether he's compassionate, flexible, as facts change, as new arguments are made, or whether the death penalty is going to be the single most searing symbol of what Texas represents. In Texas, it might be fine, but there may not be the same judgment around the country -- other states have not had near the number of executions and that's a reflection of some ambivalence about the death penalty."

The opponents also say that Pat Robertson's sympathy toward Tucker is having a strong impact on public opinion, and Robertson's stewardship of the religious right -- also an important part of Bush's constituency -- is significant. On broadcasts of "The 700 Club," Robertson has said Bush should show Tucker mercy.

"The Bible says if anybody is in Christ, he's a new creation. God forgave Karla," Robertson said in a broadcast as early as November 1993. "Whether the state of Texas will decide that she can live, that's the decision that's in their hands and the hands of the Lord. But God has forgiven her, and whether she lives or dies, she belongs to Jesus."

Robertson's view is not shared by Dick Weinhold, chairman of the Texas Christian Coalition, which has more than 200,000 members. "Pat and I are good friends, but like any friends, from time to time, we disagree," Weinhold said. "In this case, Pat is coming down on the side of compassion, and I'm coming down on the side of consequences for her actions."

Even Tucker's detractors concede that her pending death challenges long-held attitudes toward chivalry, still very much alive in this stereotypically macho state.

"First off, we're taught that women have a special place in the world," said Richard Thornton. "Then here in the United States, we have this thing called Mom and apple pie. Then I live in the South of the United States, where those things are especially revered. Now you move to Texas, where women are still treated with the respect they were accorded at the beginning of the century -- car doors are still opened here, chairs are still pulled out here. When we talk about executing a woman here in the state of Texas, it is with the greatest pain that we do so, yet knowing it is still the law. It has to be done."

Nor are her opponents moved by her announced conversion. "If she is converted, then praise the Lord," said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a victim-advocacy group in Houston. "She has had 14 years of mercy from this state in order to put herself in that position." In her own words, Karla Tucker realizes she may not be given another chance.

"Justice and law demand my life for the two innocent lives I brutally murdered that night," she wrote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. "If my execution is the only thing, the final act that can fulfill the demand for restitution and justice, then I accept that." CAPTION: Karla Faye Tucker is set to be the first woman executed in the state of Texas since the Civil War, unless the Board of Pardons and Paroles acts before Feb. 3.