Politics work against Crips founder

Politics work against Crips founder
Williams’ last hope could be a clemency hearing Thursday
Wednesday, December 7, 2005; Posted: 10:30 p.m. EST (03:30 GMT)

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — Politics and history will not be on Stanley Tookie Williams’ side Thursday when the founder of the murderous Crips street gang asks Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to spare his life for killing four people during a pair of robberies 26 years ago.

Except for Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s 2003 decision to clear out death row in his final hours in office, clemency is a gubernatorial option rarely exercised in today’s tough-on-crime climate.

“There are three reasons why clemency is hardly given now,” said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor. “One is politics. Two is politics and three is politics.”

The last California governor to grant clemency was Ronald Reagan in 1967, but the case was far different from Williams’ and times have changed dramatically since then.

The life-and-death power bestowed on the kings of England and transferred to governors and presidents of the United States has become a little-used option in the three decades since states resumed executions.

Before 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume after a brief hiatus, clemency was routinely granted. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 204 inmates nationwide were spared between 1960 and 1970.

Excluding the 167 Illinois inmates whose death sentences were commuted in 2003, only 63 lives have been spared since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Most of those acts of mercy were the result of defendants’ mental infirmities, doubts about their guilt, or efforts to build confidence in the death penalty system.

Last week Virginia’s governor commuted a death sentence because a pair of bloody scissors was improperly destroyed after the trial, depriving the defense of the opportunity to conduct new DNA tests.

Williams, 51, is scheduled to die by injection just after midnight Monday for gunning down four people at a convenience store and a motel in 1979. He claims he is innocent, but all the courts that reviewed his case have refused to reopen it.

Hollywood celebrities, capital punishment foes and others contend he has redeemed himself at San Quentin Prison and undergone a death row conversion from gang leader to man of peace. He has written anti-gang books for children, and many gang members have said his teachings helped them change their ways.

“If Stanley Williams does not merit clemency,” defense attorney Peter Fleming Jr. asked in Williams’ petition, “what meaning does clemency retain in this state?”

Prosecutors and victims’ relatives say he does not deserve mercy because he has not acknowledged guilt and has refused to inform on his gang cohorts.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers will have an hour in private with Schwarzenegger on Thursday to argue their cases. Schwarzenegger has said only that it is a weighty decision and he will give it serious thought.

The odds of getting a reprieve were better in the days before the California Supreme Court twice overturned the death penalty in 1972 and 1976. Following that, the public and lawmakers began cracking down on crime.

The Legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1977. A year later, 72 percent of California voters adopted an even stiffer capital punishment law.

In 1986, voters removed three state Supreme Court justices for reversing too many death sentences. In 1994, voters adopted the nation’s toughest repeat-offender law, the three-strikes-you’re out measure that allows life sentences for third offenses as petty as shoplifting.

California’s death row is the biggest in the nation, with nearly 650 condemned inmates. Eleven inmates have been executed since 1977.

“Clemency has become part of the politics of criminal punishment and has been slowly evaporating,” said Frank Zimring, a clemency expert at the University of California at Berkeley. “When it comes to crime and punishment, there’s been a conspicuous toughening of the governor and the public.”

During his two years in office, Schwarzenegger has denied clemency to two condemned men despite their claims of mental infirmities, innocence and good behavior behind bars.

Schwarzenegger is still smarting from the defeat of four ballot measures he backed during a November special election, and political analysts have said that granting clemency would not sit well with the conservative base the Republican needs if he hopes to win re-election next year.

An independent poll last year found that 68 percent of Californians support the death penalty — 54 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans.

“If he granted clemency, I would say, it would be a very divisive opinion,” pollster Mark DiCamillo said. “Large segments of the public would take him to task.”

Clemency has long been intertwined with politics.

Gov. Pat Brown, who in the 1950s and ’60s commuted 23 death sentences, more than any California governor, acknowledged that he once let an inmate die in the gas chamber to get a minimum-wage bill through the Legislature.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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