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Should Tookie be Spared?

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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?

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About Loretta Dillon

Loretta Dillon began her writing career publishing a neighborhood newspaper and handwritten and illustrated books as a child in a Cleveland suburb. Her strongest literary influences were MAD magazine and Mark Twain. When introduced to the internet, Dillon created a blog to showcase her satire that evolved into a popular forum on relationships, recovery and true crime stories, specifically spousal murder. Selected entries were published as a book in 2005 that was honored as a finalist for a non-fiction "Blooker" award. Dillon's comedy play, "The Smoking Diary" was produced off-Broadway in 2009.
  • Anthony Grande

    I send some of that love to you too Bennett.

    And yes, Tookie is now a martyr, but what can we do about that?

  • Bliffle

    My take, after reading what I could find, is that Tookie was a ruthless manipulator and killer, but most importantly, an accomplished conman. I don’t see much to doubt in his conviction, most of the claims of his supporters are rebutted, and I think his ‘redemption’ is fake, a story created entirely by Williams and successfully employed to manipulate gullible people on The Outside.

    Aside from that, I think his books are a joke. They were ghost written and are impractical. Also, very expensive: $84 for a 24 page book is a lot of money for precious little. The books seem to consist of nothing but exhortations against gangs and a glossary of gang terms. The glossary is of no use to anyone except police. Oh, and potential gang members! They say that Williams would be effective as a speaker against gangs, but I think exactly the opposite. And clemency at this time would have offered an escape to gang members. And would have demonstrated the efficacy of jailhouse lawyering and conning.

    Remember, Williams had 26 years to fulltime develop his cons and excuses. The poor people who he manipulated were simply under-equipped to deal with such an onslaught of alibiing.

    As for being an ‘expert’, I don’t think so. Did Williams immerse himself in Psychology and Anthropology books and studies while in jail to find the roots of gangs? No. He spent his time rationalizing his own behaviour and manipulating others. Williams knew nothing about gangs except how to climb to the top and how to sieze power.


    I have a bad feeling that gangbangers will only use Mr. Williams now as a type of martyr, but will fail to learn from his later writings. IN a way, it is similar to those who quote the younger Malcom X and ignore his later less militant writing.

  • Bennett

    More love from our seventeen year old hater.

    Do you seeth?

  • Anthony Grande

    I hope the Devil is a Blood.

  • Anthony Grande

    Bye Tookie!!!

    Thank you for giving us the Bloodz and Crips!!!

  • Thank you for the kind remarks, Baronius.

    I don’t think Tookie could possibly be the poster boy for gang reform. Is that the best they can do? Pathetic, if so.

    There are many fine men NOT in prison who could be a bigger influence than a convicted murderer.

  • Baronius

    Loretta – Excellent quotes. I read his “apology” as a not-so-subtle invocation of racism. Bringing up South Africa helps create some nice Mandela imagery, often used by his defenders. Street gangs forced into crime by slavemasters. He knows how to handle the press.

  • tookie pays for his crimes tonight!!

  • GoHah

    —-“On a civilian population?”

    Whoa there–the subject was prisons! I’m sorry if I misunderstood, (and I concede that I might’ve) and I agree, when it comes to civilian population, it’s a different matter, of course.

    Having said that, the fact that Tookie won’t be around to suffer security watches and fingerprinting and other overwhelminlgy oppresive measures, or watch TV or use the library, is a good thing.

  • Sad news. They are killing him in the morning.

  • GoHah: Er, “And finally, what is wrong with routine “armed isolation subject to aggressive policing, intrusive security and fingerprinting, dna collection and drugtesting?” On a civilian population?

    Have you ever been to Europe? You’re gonna feel like you got out of jail yourself if you come over here…

  • GoHah

    Christopher: I think Hank Jr. would do it this way. Anyway, (setting aside the Iraq allusion), you have a valid point about prison’s as breeding grounds for bad-assary. I won’t belabor the death penalty issue–I’ve belabored it elsewhere that, while I am for a judicious use of it, some states, like California, still need to put in an express lane. But because the crime problems need to be addressed at the street level or before the arrest or jailing occurs (education, social work, employment assistance, more policing and police presence, etc.), I see, if and when it comes to it, jails and prisons as “points of no return” to an extent–and as such I see no problem with building more prisons and using them for warehousing if need be, and continuing and improving rehabilitation efforts.

    And finally, what is wrong with routine “armed isolation subject to aggressive policing, intrusive security and fingerprinting, dna collection and drugtesting”? (this is yet another issue that the ACLU is so wrong wrong wrong about). These measures comprise more efforts to curtail the “badass” training ground aspect, and, with dna collection and fingerprinting, constitute more diligent, fool-proof, and preventive endeavors to mitigate and solve repeat offenses and crimes.

    I’m not trying to be contentious (it comes naturally sometimes)–just trying to understand and ponder the unponderables like anyone else.

  • I think it is possible for people to rebuild their lives but it seems hard to apply that kind of thinking to this situation.

    There is a fundamental need to address the entire nature of the application of law in the USA. The prison population is too high, it’s not solving any problems at all (most US prisons seem to be serving the same purpose as Iraq, a training ground for badasses) and the death penalty is obscene in any nation that considers itself civilized.

    The land of the free is risking turning into a land of prisoners; some in jail, the rest living in armed isolation subject to aggressive policing, intrusive security and fingerprinting, dna collection and drugtesting seem to be almost routine.

    I’m not trying to be rude about what is still a great country, so let’s not get into a US Rules debate; but are we sure Hank would have done it this way?

    Is there any sign of a serious debate on this within US politics?

  • GoHah

    —“Can a man redeem himself enough to atone for killing 4 people? I can’t anwer these questions, either.”

    I don’t seem to have a problem in answering this: No, a man cannot redeem himself enough to atone for killing 4 people. It’s patently obvious to me.

  • well done with good points…

  • GoHah

    SFC SKI: I also agree that, absolutely, we should not be cavalier about the death penalty. But there is a preponderance of evidence in this case, and whatever redemption and piedpiper-of-peace mitigation there may be is a too-little, too-late and inconsequential issue, especially when you consider that these childrens’ books had the help, if not the complete work of, a ghostwriter.

    And take the claims that Williams is a sudden positive role model for kids, and balance those contentions with with the the violence and considerable killings perpetrated by the Crips’ gangs that he co-foundeed. I would think that execution would send a better and more lasting message to kids tempted to join gangs: here’s the real consequences of your actions is if you go down that road. Welcome to the real world, and no, you won’t get 24 years to languish to figure out an out and gather up whatever misguided liberal celebrities you can–morally myopic Hollywood stars who, too, in their socio-babble about the “sanctity of human life,” seem to convenientally have forgotten the four brutally murdered victims and their families.


    Is prison designed for rehabilitation as well as punishment? Can a man redeem himself enough to atone for killing 4 people? I can’t anwer these questions, either. It is a terrible shame that Mr. Williams for his books is so celebrated while his crimes are disregarded and his victims are mostly forgotten by Mr. Williams celebrity supporters.

    As for the death penaly, it should only be imposed if their is an absolute preponderance of evidence against the accused leaving no room for error. If that is the case, it should be swift.

  • Perhaps I am ambivalent about the entire process, which was revealed in my lack of a commitment to the issue.

    I think if you have a death penalty, it should be swift. If you don’t make it swift, you should abolish it.

  • GoHah

    Loretta #3″ thanks for the clarification, because you sure didn’t make this clear in your article. Judging from the facts you brought out (and there are more damning facts, such as his verbally threatening the jury, and the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refusing to hear the case again) you made the case that not only should California correctly retain the death penalty, they should put in an express lane–24 years on death row, and excessive appeals, is absurd.

  • It’s not unusual for a death row inmate to outlive many of his victims’ families.

    If they are going to have a death penalty in California, it should not be such a burden on the taxpayers and the victims.

    I don’t think the death penalty makes any sense, otherwise. How do you deter crime when a criminal like Williams can become a celebrity behind bars and outlive his peers on the street?

  • I think the point was that the way we apply it and the factors we are talking about now make the death penalty an unfair system.

  • This is a really interesting article, and a really interesting subject. I hadn’t really heard anything about this case before.

    Although I must admit, based on your first sentence, I thought you were going to make a case why Tookie shouldn’t receive the death penalty, but then your article goes on to argue why his apologies and “redemption” shouldn’t be believed to be sincere.