Monday, December 12, 2005

Tookie Williams to Die

WilliamsCalifornia Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will not be honoring a clemency recommendation to commute the sentence of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. He also rejected a stay of execution based on a last-minute claim of innocence. Schwarzenegger dismissed arguments that Williams, one of the founders of the Crips criminal gang, was wrongly convicted of murder and and that his many good works since his incarceration are proof of his redemption. The actor-governor's decision means that Williams death sentence is sealed; at 12:01 AM Pacific Standard Time (3 AM EST), the State of California will execute him by lethal injection.

Although Williams's lawyers presented new accounts from witnesses in making the clemency and stay requests, Schwarzenegger cited prior court rulings upholding Williams's 1981 death sentence and conviction for four 1979 Los Angeles murders and graphically described the killings, which occurred during one of the worst periods of gang-related crime in that city and region. He also cited the oft-stated remark that Williams had not apologized and thus not atoned for the crimes, and thus had not been redeemed, though Williams has maintained his innocence and stuck true to the principle that he shouldn't apologize for crimes he steadfastly claims he didn't commit.

Numerous celebrities, including the Reverend Jessie Jackson and actors Mike Farrell and Jamie Foxx, who'd starred as Williams in the 2004 TV movie Redemption, as well as hundreds of grass-roots anti-death penalty activists, had rallied to Williams's defense, based in large part on his condemnation and renunciation of gang violence, as well as his speeches, books and lectures to steer young people away from lives of crime. It's inarguable that Williams's community work has had a positive effect in defusing potential criminals, or at least in raising awareness among young people drawn, for whatever reasons, to crime. He has repeatedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I've personally thought that with Republican Schwarzenegger as governor, there was no hope of a commutation or stay for Williams. The action-fim star turned politician, who entered office via a sham recall election, has demonstrated few to no principles or mettle since taking office. Instead, he's turned like a weathervane depending upon the political context, operating less as a pragmatist than as an opportunist. In this regard, he's followed the trend of his party. After the blistering defeat of four ballot measures he'd championed while under the sway of authoritarian-minded right-wingers, he promptly rushed out and hired not a moderate but a liberal lesbian from Northern California as his chief of staff. Conservative Republicans immediately started screaming like babies, and with minimal support from Democrats and abysmal ratings among independent voters, Schwarzenegger again took the expedient route, appearing to look tough while in essence playing God, as if in one of his movies. The result is that instead of an actor playing dead in one of his films, yet another living human being will die. For a second I considered that Schwarzenegger's acknowledged Roman Catholicism (and the beliefs and influence of his wife, former telejournalist and Kennedy family member Maria Shriver) might play a role, because Catholic doctrine is explicitly against the death penalty. But neither church teachings nor the compassionate example of former Illinois governor George Ryan, also Catholic I believe, swayed Schwarzenegger in the least. For the sake of politics he decided to have the true stench of death on his hands. In terms of the church's reponse, though, I doubt that the governor (or any other Catholic politicians, for that matter) would face any religious sanctions for permitting the state killing as he might for his pro-choice (and pro-abortion) stance.

The racial disparities in legal and judicial treatment, the roster of faulty, botched or fixed investigations that have contributed to death convictions, and the preponderance of black and brown men on death row or killed under the death penalty statutes are immediate reasons for again terminating the death penalty. The thought that even one innocent person could be killed, just as innocent people have been killed and severely maimed in the crimes for which the penalty was handed down is another reason for it to be abolished. Yet I'd think that most Christians, no matter how "righteous" they consider themselves, would recognize the inherent cruelty and lack of mercy in effecting this ultimate sanction against another human and how much the death penalty contravenes the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25:31-45)

Yet some of the most avid supporters of the death penalty, cruelty to those in prison, torture, demonizers of the poor, women, homosexuals, etc. are self-proclaimed Christians, so evidently their "faith" has no bearing, or they simply overlook this passage in Matthew, as well as others in the New Testament Gospels and go on their merry way.

In the mid-1970s, the Supreme Court went to so far as to impose a moratorium on the dealth penalty in the US. But once that ruling was revisited in the 1980s and states could again reinstitute the death penalty, 1,000 people have died, as part of a so-called system of "justice"--what gives any person the right to condemn any other to death?--some of them wrongly so (as advances in DNA and genomic testing and a posteriori examinations of biased trials have shown). Supposedly anywhere from 20 to 120 people have been wrongly sentenced to death and killed, but even one such death is wrong.

While I cannot say whether Williams has been wrongly convicted or if the prosecutors used racist tactics in acquiring an all-white jury to convict Williams, I do not believe he should be killed. I do not believe in the death penalty at all. It is not a deterrant, nor does the taking of a criminal's life ever balance out the murders--however horrific--of his or her victims, no matter whether there were mitigating circumstances. I praise Williams' good works since his imprisonment, but mourn the losses of those who are said to have been his victims. As a co-founder of the Crips, one of the most violent gangs in recent history, he is to blame in some part, I believe, for a good deal of the widespread criminally-related violence and suffering that the Crips and other street gangs have inflicted primarily on other black people across this country.

But I still disagree with his execution, particularly at the levers of the state. Schwarzenegger could have done the simple and merciful thing, and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Prison life, particularly for men like Williams, is seldom enjoyable, despite what snarl-mouthed, perpetually angry Nancy Grace or ash-voiced ditz Rita Cosby have to say (have either of them been in maximum security confinement, or placed or death row? I think not). Imprisonment ultimately means and enforces severe constraints on freedom and the constant threat of extreme violence, so Williams wouldn't be spending the rest of his days in camp. And if were not killed, he could have spent the ends of his days spreading a word of peace. Wouldn't that have been the Christian thing to do--particularly for a self-proclaimed Christian like Schwarzenegger?


  1. Thanks for these thoughts, John. I find it interesting that there haven't been louder protests against the death penalty coming from religious communities. But perhaps the point is that there hasn't been grand scale media coverage of these protests.

  2. Mendi, you're right that there hasn't been grand scale media coverage, but then the media know that the Catholic Church--the largest Christian church in this country, which gets endless attention for its anti-abortion and anti-gay rights stances--strongly opposes both the War in Iraq AND the death penalty. Yet the media downplay this, because they fetishize the idea and practice of the death penalty as a form of legalized vengeance. How does killing Williams bring back the lives of the four people he allegedly killed? How does it honor them? How does it equalize those deaths? It's nonsensical. If he did commit the crimes--and he was a co-founder of one of a violent and destructive street gang--then lock him away, just as members of the Mafia, or the criminals behind this Iraq War should be locked away. But executing him solves nothing. And the glee with which some commentators were describing his pending death really disturbs and upsets me.