The Rules of Redemption


Early this morning, the State of California executed Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the Crips gang co-founder convicted in 1981 of four 1979 robbery-related murders. Williams and his legal team had appealed to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency—a commutation of Williams’s death sentence to life without parole. Since 1993, they asserted, Williams had become a leading spokesman against gang violence, authoring a number of anti-gang children’s books, and even netting himself several Nobel Peace Prize nominations in light of so stark a change of heart. Still, Schwarzenegger refused. How could Williams have convinced the governor otherwise?

The rules of redemption—what constitutes redemption, how a prisoner redeems himself clearly and convincingly, to what extent prisons should account for the possibility of redemption—stands to become one of the most compelling conversations to come out of the Williams case.

For California, the mechanism of clemency is understandably, but perhaps unjustifiably nebulous:

The letter to the Governor’s Office requesting a commutation of sentence should include:

  • The applicant’s name (including any aliases) and prison number. 
  • The county and case number of conviction, if known. 
  • The date and circumstances of all felony offenses for which the applicant has been convicted. 
  • The date the applicant was received in prison. 
  • Why a commutation of sentence is desired or needed.


Once the formal application is received, the Governor refers it to the Board of Prison Terms (BPT). BPT will conduct an investigation to determine whether the applicant meets the standards set forth in California Penal Code section 4852.05, which states, ‘During the period of rehabilitation the person shall live an honest and upright life, shall conduct himself or herself with sobriety and industry, shall exhibit a good moral character, and shall conform to and obey the laws of the land.’

“Plead insanity!” is not a punchline for nothing. The U.S. legal system considers both a defendant’s actions per se and the motivations behind them. And while some sudden overturn of capital punishment is unlikelys, more explicit criteria for how one’s heart can lawfully be considered “changed” could prove to capital punishment advocates that the “good of redemption” often can equal the “good of retribution,” as Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center and associate dean for programs and planning at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, recently told the LA Times: “Which is more important: the lesson of criminal deterrence or the lesson of personal reformation?”

In the case of Williams, Marc Cooper goes even further, smartly noting the distinction between “redemption” and “contrition.” If Williams did in fact murder those four people (to this day, he maintains his innocence), “there can be no redemption for someone like [him],” writes Cooper. “When a convicted killer or his supporters claim ‘rehabilitation’ I think it becomes fair game to see what the starting point is of their personal journey. How much do they have to make up for?”

But even that can get tricky. As L.A. radio shock-jock John Kobylt, who’s spent the last several months on his AM radio show “John and Ken” antagonizing Williams’s sympathizers, baldly points out: “How does writing books make up for the loss of the four people who were brutally shotgunned?” Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement yesterday further rehashed the fact that Williams, to this day, refuses to apologize—”Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption”—proving that perhaps Williams’s contrition is merely purported.

So again, how does a death row convict convincingly atone? What sorts of deadlines do we make for him? And had Williams been granted clemency, would we extend the current death row sentences as much as 26 years just to make sure Convict X has been given the full allowance? And so on. If clemency is the exception, it could stand to have better rules.