Friday, November 4, 2005
It's not just about saving 'Tookie,'
By R. W. Dellinger
In an effort to save the life of Stanley "Tookie" Williams from being executed Dec. 13, lawyers and religious leaders launched what the Los Angeles Times called a "vigorous battle" Oct. 24 in front of the Criminal Courts building downtown.
But that "vigorous battle," according to one of the religious leaders present at the rally, has been taking place for a long time.
"There has been a concerted effort for many, many years of people opposed to the death penalty --- period," says Father Chris Ponnet, pastor of St. Camillus Pastoral Care Center in Boyle Heights. "And we protest every time another individual is going to be put to death here in California."
Still, as he sits at a red table in St. Camillus' little rectory, across from the sprawling Los Angles County-University of Southern California Medical Center, the 48-year-old priest --- also director of Catholic chaplains and part-time director of all interfaith chaplains at the county facility and nearby private hospitals --- admits that the Tookie Williams case has some unique characteristics.
"I struggle with calling this a special case," Father Ponnet says. Then he talks about a 17-year-old he counseled last night who tried to kill himself, and how his life is just as valuable as Williams'.
"I think our role as church people is every time an execution comes up, we need to be there opposing it. Because each of those people is significant. But this is a political world. Do we use this moment where Mr. Williams is known around the world to not only argue for his life but also for others? I think that's the reality for our American democracy."
Sin and redemption
Tookie Williams is seemingly a poster boy for sin and redemption.
In 1971, he and a friend started The Crips, the infamous South Los Angeles gang that has spread across the United States and as far as South Africa.
A decade later, the hardcore gang-banger was sentenced to death for four robbery-related murders. On Feb. 27, 1979, he killed a young 7-Eleven clerk, Albert Owens, and 12 days later killed motel owners Yen-I Yang and Thsai-Shaic Yang as well as their daughter, Yee Chen Lin, at the Brookhaven Motel on Vermont Ave.
While in "The Hole" at San Quentin Prison, Williams had a "reawakening" in 1993. He told a magazine interviewer, "I unchained my mind, and did so through prayers and extensive study. I had to seriously decide whether I was a human or a beast. In choosing not to be a beast, I discovered my humanity."
The prisoner went on to write a series of books for urban kids called Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence. He also penned Life in Prison, about living on death row, and an autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. In addition, he created an anti-gang website called the Internet Project for Street Peace.
In 2001, a member of the Swiss Parliament even nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Peace and Literature.
Date with death
Mindful of Williams' accomplishments and accolades, Father Ponnet is hoping that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will grant Williams clemency now that the 52-year-old convict has exhausted his appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the clock is ticking, since a superior court judge rejected a recent request by defense attorneys to delay the execution to later than Dec. 13.
"The question the governor has before him as the governor, let alone as a Christian and a Catholic, is to ponder the opportunity to move away from his strict death penalty position and say, 'This man has used the system to reform, plus he has led thousands of folks to redirect their lives away from gangs and violence,'" Father Ponnet points out.
"This is one of those cases where a person, after being tried and convicted, has turned his life around, but has also affected many other peoples' lives. And what better role model for people who are considering moving into that gang lifestyle than a person who says, 'What I was doing was wrong. Change your ways.'
"And he could continue to do this for the rest of his life in prison, because we're not asking that he ever be set free," he adds. "But if he's executed, then his voice is lost forever."
Father Ponnet admits he's perplexed that Williams has not accepted responsibility for the four murders, which family members of his victims have brought up and which is likely to be the main argument by state officials against granting clemency.
Moreover, while a quartet of witnesses identified Williams as the killer of the Yang family, the defense team has argued that blacks were purposely kept off the convicting jury and that one witness was an immunized government witness. (Williams is an African American.)
"If he committed the crime, I am saddened, and I wish I could help him publicly to confess to his sins," the hospital chaplain says. "But if a person is very clear about that he is innocent, that he was set up --- and also part of the evidence is people thought he was bad and evil because he started The Crips --- then that's another matter.
"If he committed the crimes and I was his spiritual director, I would be encouraging him to be very public about apologizing and confessing. But if he's not guilty and he's clear about that, I don't think in good conscience I could force him to lie just to save his life. And he has held clear that he did not kill those four people."
Consistent life ethic
Father Ponnet first got embroiled with the death penalty as a neophyte priest one year out of the seminary assigned to Our Lady of the Valley Church in Canoga Park. When a young police officer parishioner was murdered, he tried to accompany his wife and kids through their grief. After a couple months, however, it became clear his efforts to help them get beyond their anger was being strongly opposed by the survivors' circle of law enforcement friends who wanted revenge.
A year later, another young man from the suburban parish was brutally murdered. But the reaction of the survivors this time was totally different. After six months, the victim's mother even visited the accused in jail and forgave him.
"Those two stories have stayed very close to my heart why I'm about what I'm about," the priest confides.
Still, he doesn't really know how he'd react is somebody from his own family was killed. He thinks he would be filled with pain and anger, but also hopes those around him would say, "Chris, don't kill another person to get even."
He believes that's where the church community needs to step in today, especially with conservative Catholics who don't see the death penalty as a life issue.
Whenever he gives talks, Father Ponnet stresses a consistent life ethic. Abortion must be linked not only to the death penalty, but also with end-of-life issues, poverty, AIDS and healthcare.
The outgoing cleric says he's been renewed by being on the board of directors of Death Penalty Focus of California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through grassroots organizing, research and the dissemination of information about the death penalty and its alternatives.
"There's no question in my mind that at some point in the near future executions will stop," says Father Ponnet. "I think history is moving us in that direction, let alone God."
“Nobody's perfect. We're all just one step up from the beasts and one step down from the angels.”