Founder of Crips Should Be Redeemed
Written by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
By now many know the story of Stanley "Tookie" Williams courtesy of the smash performance by Academy Award winning actor Jamie Foxx who played Williams in the made-for-TV film Redemption. The co-founder of the Crips street gang's story reads like a gory tale of gang violence, mayhem, and destruction, but it also reads like a saintly tale of spiritual renewal, public service, and human achievement. Both parts of his tale could come crashing to a tragic end if, or more likely when, his execution date is formally set. That could come at a hearing before the end of October in Los Angeles.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has made it clear that he'll push hard for an execution date. There's nothing legally to stop him. In a last gasp effort, October 11, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reopen William's case. That pretty much slammed the legal door shut on one of America's most famous death row inmates. Williams, convicted of four murders, has languished on death row for nearly a quarter of century. He contends that he got a bad shake. A mostly white jury convicted him, got a subpar legal defense, and his case was based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants.
A national campaign has been launched to prod Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Tookie clemency. California is one of fourteen states where governors have sole authority to commute a condemned killer's sentence. But that would buck precedent. In the nearly four decades since Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a brain damaged death row inmate, no California governor has waved a death sentence.
And Reagan took action only because the latest scientific test to determine brain damage was not available at the time of the condemned killer's trial.
Tookie, on the other hand, seems a prime candidate for clemency. His prizewinning children's books, Nobel Peace nominations, and his anti-violence messages have been the stuff of public acclaim. His radical life affirming volte face has made him a near universal symbol of hope that even the most hardened, bitter, and incorrigible street thug can find salvation.
But that's not enough. And Schwarzenegger has said as much. He flatly refused to grant clemency to two condemned murderers. Both times, he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes.
When it comes to condemned killers, no matter what the circumstances of the crime, how young they were when they committed murder, how much praise they garnered from judges and prison officials, how many college degrees they got in prison, or that they had made Mother Teresa like beatific conversions during their long stint in prison, they still must pay the supreme price.
Schwarzenegger is not unique among governors when it comes to quashing clemency appeals. During the past decade, only five death row inmates have had their sentences commuted in any single year. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of virtually all condemned killers before departing office in 2003. That was the rare exceptions to the unwritten rule that governors don't grant clemency. They're scared stiff of being tagged as soft on crime, and being insensitive to victims. In the forty years prior to Ryan's action, only one death row inmate in Illinois got executive clemency. Since Ryan's headline grabbing and humane action, only seven other persons have gotten their death sentences commuted nationally.
Even if Schwarzenegger were inclined to grant Williams clemency, he's trapped by the relentless politics of crime and punishment, and his nosedive in popularity. His ratings wallow at the bottom of the tank with President Bush's. A majority of California voters blast him for ramming a costly, wasteful, and unnecessary special election onto the November 8 California ballot. William's personal turnabout is exemplary and sparing his life is the morally the right thing to do. Clemency is not the same as freedom. He will still likely spend the rest of his days in prison. But 2006 is an election year in California, and the last thing that Republican Schwarzenegger can afford to be plastered with is the soft on crime label for sparing the life of a black, ex-gang leader, and convicted multiple murderer.
Playing hardball with the lives of prisoners that have turned their lives around may seem like a sure ticket for a politician to snatch votes, it's still bad public policy. With the handful of convicted killers who have shown by their deeds that they have redeemed themselves, it makes no sense for a governor to hold them hostages to past political fears. Williams is not Willie Horton. Schwarzenegger almost surely knows that.
Yet, as long as he thinks that he is, prisoners that have shown by their remorse and deeds that they can be model and productive citizens will be denied the second chance they've worked hard for. Tookie will likely be one of them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for BlackNews.com, an author and political analyst.