The prevailing controversy surrounding Stanley “Tookie” Williams’ impending execution on December 13 is a good example of why the death penalty should be eliminated in states like California. Williams has been on death row for over 20 years. He can thank the state for his longevity, since he probably wouldn’t have made it to age 30 on the streets of Los Angeles as a founding member of the Crips. Somewhere around 1993, Williams officially renounced his gang affiliation (although his writings tend to belie this claim), and he has spent his ample leisure time penning anti-gang books for children. As a result of his efforts (and an aggressive public relations campaign), Williams was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
For argument’s sake, let’s give Williams the benefit of the doubt and accept his redemption and humanitarian mission as sincere. Does this mean that whenever a condemned inmate reaches out from prison and affects a group of people in a positive way he merits clemency? What is the point of having capital punishment if the state can discriminate against those poor schmucks with no constituency, friends in high places, literary skills, web sites or fan clubs? Will other gang members on death row take a page from Tookie’s strategy to escape execution?
Since I don’t have access to the trial transcripts of California v. Williams, I can’t verify any of the testimony of the trial described in articles supporting both sides of the story. According to most accounts, there were five witnesses to the four murders Williams was convicted of committing. Williams allegedly confessed (bragged) to several Crips and knew too much about the murders not to have been directly involved. It is reasonable to conclude that the lead prosecutor was monomaniacal, and that the venue change to Torrance (a predominantly white community) and the removal of the only three black jurors on the panel was prejudicial to the defendant. Nonetheless, these issues were denied on appeal. Evidence that Williams was actually innocent of the crimes was never sufficiently demonstrated, so it really boiled down to whether or not he received a fair trial.
However, I do have access to Williams’ “apology” and his essays published on a web site dedicated to his work behind bars that, by reading between the lines, may reveal his true mindset.
Here is the opening of his “apology”:
Twenty-five years ago when I created the Crips youth gang with Raymond Lee Washington in South Central Los Angeles, I never imagined Crips membership would one day spread throughout California, would spread to much of the rest of the nation and to cities in South Africa, where Crips copycat gangs have formed.
Call me cynical, but that first sentence smacks of pride. It’s as if he is saying, “Look at the vast empire I helped create!” You would think that an apology would begin with, “I’m sorry.” Not with Tookie. He doesn’t get around to that until the fifth sentence:
So today I apologize to you all — the children of America and South Africa — who must cope every day with dangerous street gangs. I no longer participate in the so-called gangster lifestyle, and I deeply regret that I ever did.
Note that he doesn’t apologize to the victims’ families or anyone specifically whom he harmed during his years of lawlessness. He doesn’t direct his contrition to cops, lawyers, judges, parole officers, prison guards, business owners, city workers, or anyone else whose life he made more difficult from his legacy. No – he apologizes to “the children”. Doesn’t this sound like something Michael Jackson would say?
In his “Letter to Youth #2”, Williams compares the prisoner-guard relationship with that of “master-slave”, evoking the idea that he is a victim of racism instead of his own behavior:
On the other hand, the resemblance of the prisoner to the slave is that both are subjected to strict rules, confined like animals, controlled, often brutalized physically as well as psychologically, and deprived of basic human rights.
The distinct difference Williams fails to point out is that prisoners forfeit their freedom by breaking the law, not because they are bought and sold like chattel. That murderers like Williams deprived their victims of basic human rights is conveniently disregarded. Williams’ comparison falls short of reality even for him, so he goes on to enumerate “modern-day slave traits”, concluding with an allusion of guilt: “A modern-day slave will foolishly commit crimes that cause him to end up behind bars, incarcerated, in mental and physical bondage.”
One of his supporters suggested that because Tookie was an avid body builder and idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor should spare his life. I can see it now: in 15, 20 years, the governor of California is a scratch golfer and Scott Peterson’s groupies use the fact that he was a good golfer as an argument to commute his sentence to life without parole. Or, wait – would that be an avid fisherman?