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'This was not a man who went meekly': An eyewitness account of Stanley Tookie Williams' execution
Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
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The execution of convicted murderer Stanley Tookie Williams was a defiant, determined and messy affair -- surprising right up to the bitter end, just like his unfortunate life.
From the moment five guards walked him into the death chamber at 11:59 p.m. until 36 minutes later when Williams' heart stopped beating, the 51-year-old former gangster and his supporters tried their hardest to get through his final minutes on earth on their own terms. And they succeeded, as well as could be done under the circumstances -- and certainly more than in any of the 11 other executions since 1992, when San Quentin Prison's lime-green death chamber was put back into action after a 25-year hiatus.
All of the other men killed by lethal injection lay so quietly on the gurney as they were strapped down and poisoned that, except for a few small movements, it was hard to tell if they were even awake. Even in the two gassings at San Quentin that preceded the injections, Robert Alton Harris and David Mason faced their ends stoically.
Williams was different.
He got exasperated at the guards for taking too long inserting his needles -- 11 minutes, about nine longer than usual -- angrily asking, "You guys doing that right?" He prayed as he was being lashed to the cross-shaped gurney, lips moving rapidly several minutes at a time. At one point, a tear rolled down his cheek.
Just before the poisons began pumping into his veins at 12:18 a.m., Williams struggled mightily against the straps holding down his shoulders, arms and chest to raise his head and stare, hard, at the press corps on the western wall of the witness room for six long seconds. He'd done the same thing earlier to gaze at other parts of the room.
Finally, as a woman prison guard read off the warrant proclaiming that prisoner number C29300 had been sentenced to die and "the execution shall now proceed," Williams forced his head up one last time to stare into the eyes of the five friends he asked to be present -- and he kept it raised until he passed out 1-1/2 minutes later from the first salvo of chemicals, sodium pentothal to put him to sleep.
From there on it was a nail-biting vigil for everyone outside staring in, with no way to know which chemicals were being administered, since the plungers sending them into the intravenous tubes are pressed by unseen hands behind the chamber walls. Williams's chest heaved several times as he lay with his eyes closed, but somewhere in the 15 minutes from 12:20 a.m. to 12:35 a.m. the executioners filled his veins with pancuronium bromide to stop his breathing, and then potassium chloride to stop his heart.
Finally, someone behind the walls called out, "He's flatlined," and it was over.
During the last execution -- triple-killer Donald Beardslee, in January -- the actual injection process took four fewer minutes; injections for William "The Freeway Killer" Bonin only required four minutes in 1996. The extra time to administer poisons to Williams seemed excrutiatingly long, with everyone tensely watching, and I began to think something had gone wrong. But after I'd walked out of the chamber, and after prison officials assured us they did not have to administer extra shots of chemicals, it made more sense.
Williams was the most muscular man of the 12 killed at San Quentin since 1992 -- his bulging arms looked like toned thighs and his chest was a barrel -- and it seems to me his body was fighting off the inevitable, even after consciousness and the ability to move had fled.
This was not a man who went meekly.
That seemed in line with someone who co-founded the notorious Crips street gang decades ago in defiance of law-abiding society, and then converted so strongly to the cause of peace that he renounced the gang life and campaigned for peace from behind the prison walls. From youth to death, Williams was always trying to set his own term, to stick to what he perceived as his own sense of dignity. I watched the final manifestation of that.
Williams didn't even give his final words to the warden, as is tradition. Warden Steve Ornoski said Williams chose instead to leave his final message with Barbara Becnel, his friend and co-author of the anti-gang books that earned Williams Nobel Prize nominations and praise for their spirit of redemption.
Things were also startlingly different in the witness room, where 39 of us stood or sat watching through the thick glass walls of the cramped, 7-1/2-foot-wide chamber. Prison guards always warn that if anyone cries or talks loudly he or she will be instantly ejected, and nobody ever even waves, let alone talks -- and for most of the witnesses, that was the case Tuesday morning.
It's impossible to tell who many witnesses are, because nobody can move from their spot or talk, but they always break down into four groups: Supporters of the condemned man, supporters of his victims, 17 media representatives, and more than a dozen law enforcement and legal officials. In this execution, at least five witnesses were related to the four people Williams was convicted in 1981 of shooting to death in Southern California -- convenience store clerk Albert Owens, 26, and motel owners Yen-I Yang, 76, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 63, and their daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, 43 -- and one of those family members sat in the front row, Owens' stepmother Lora Owens. Three other women sitting near her appeared also to be relatives.
Aside from one blonde woman putting an arm around Owens for a few minutes, none of the women showed any emotion until the very end, staring somberly at Williams. Indeed, nobody else betrayed any overt feelings either -- with the exception of one group.
The Williams contingent.
Becnel stood with two companions -- a woman and a man -- at the only window in the death chamber with a clear line of sight into Williams' eyes, and it was as if the three were willing themselves to transcend the glass and stand right there in the death chamber with their friend. They thrust their fists up in what clearly seemed to be a black power salute, and the man once called out softly, "Tookie." They repeatedly whispered, "I love you," and "God bless you," as they looked adoringly into Williams' eyes. After his eyes closed, the women clasped their hands as if in prayer.
Then, in the most radical departure of decorum for this modern era of executions, the trio shouted as they left the death chamber: "The state of California just killed an innocent man!" The sound crackled like lightning through the thick silence of the room, and Lora Owens gasped as if she'd been slapped. She burst into tears, pressing a Kleenex to her face.
An anguished look filled her eyes and a blonde woman sitting next to her put her arm around her, comforting her. That was the last I saw of her as we were in the media were marched out by guards.
Outside the prison, I'm told 2,000 demonstrators -- most of them against the death penalty -- wept and shouted and waved picket signs as the execution went through. But for those of us inside the death chamber, none of that mattered. It could not even be heard. The walls are too thick in the fortress-like Death Row, where the execution chamber is appropriately enough placed, for any outside noise to leak in.
It was just as well. We didn't need to see it.
I know from talking to many others who have shared that chamber with me before that when months or even years have gone by, there will be no real closure or peace after what we saw Tuesday morning. Williams will not be alive for the supporters who wanted to save him, and the people he was convicted of killing will still leave huge empty spaces in the hearts of their loved ones.
All those most intimately involved witnesses will be left with is the memory of the grimacing, the shouting, the staring, the thick tension of the waiting and watching that we all underwent for 36 minutes.
That will be enough for them to deal with.
Stanley Tookie Williams' execution is the sixth that Kevin Fagan has witnessed.
Email Kevin Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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