This week Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will decide whether the convicted murderer and co-founder of the Crips gang, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, lives or dies. But that’s all that should be decided. Not whether Williams has been redeemed. Merely, will he be executed on December 13?
I’m a death penalty abolitionist and therefore believe, deeply, that capital punishment is wrong; that it is barbaric, that it belittles all of us, whether or not its victims are innocent or guilty as charged.
The celebrity campaign championing Williams, I suppose, is a tactical necessity to draw attention to his case. When Schwarzenegger holds the first California clemency hearing since 1992 this week to decide his fate, the governor, after all, will be judging Williams, not the overall immorality of capital punishment.
And while I believe Williams (and everyone else on death row) should not be put to death, I find myself extremely uncomfortable with any notion that Williams has been redeemed. There can be no redemption for someone like Williams. There can only be contrition. Only a commutation of sentence. Not elevation to sainthood.
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? That’s not to say individuals can’t or shouldn’t be rehabilitated nor that we shouldn’t applaud them when they do undergo some change.
In Williams’ case, he starts out in a very deep and dark hole. His four victims were horribly massacred. No court in the land, including the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, has seen enough exculpatory evidence to overturn his conviction.
Nor does Williams deny his central role in organizing our own local Murder Inc., the Crips. I accept at face value his claims to rehabilitation. I know he has written children’s books; that he has advocated gang truces; that he has renounced violence; that some Swiss professor, somehow, nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Great. In my ledger books, that might—I repeat, might—balance out the wholesale evil that Williams has wrought earlier in life. Ask me what I feel about him, and if in a generous mood, I would stay coldly and begrudgingly neutral. Ask me to celebrate him, however, and I’m likely to go the other way. While his sentence stems from the murder of four individuals, any judgment of Tookie Williams, the man, must also weigh the terminated lives of literally hundreds of poor, black youth who had no trials, no appeals and no defense campaigns before they were summarily executed by the Crips’ shooters.
The larger question, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it earlier this week, is how do we view Williams’ case against the larger backdrop of America’s brimming death row? Robinson, as I, repudiates capital punishment but adds, “it can’t be right to save Williams just because he’s a famous desperado (or former desperado) with famous friends, and then blithely go back to snuffing out the lives of other criminals who lack his talent for public relations.”
More than 3,000 people currently sit on death row, slowly awaiting execution. About one of five are in California. Blacks and whites have been the victims of murder in almost equal numbers, but 80 percent of those executed since 1977 were convicted of murders of white people. And more than 40 percent of those awaiting execution are blacks.
The most shocking statistic in this stew is that a full third or more of death-row prisoners don’t have legal representation. It’s a fair assumption that most of the condemned are, indeed, guilty. Many are neither remorseful nor rehabilitated. Except for the ubiquitous Mumia Abu-Jamal and now Tookie Williams, none of them have the notable and the famous lobbying passionately for their lives. They remain as anonymous and as forgotten as their victims — including Williams’ victims.
All those inmates deserve commutation as much as Williams. It’s my sincere hope that Governor Schwarzenegger, for whatever reasons he might have in his head, will do the right thing and grant clemency. Then we all better sit down and figure out how we, once and for all, do away with this barbaric device of the death penalty without having to lionize those who, in the end, richly deserve a life behind bars without parole.
This article originally appeared in LA Weekly.