Twelve days from now, unless Governor Schwarzenegger commutes his death sentence, California will put Stanley Williams to death by lethal injection.
Every route to clemency has been closed to the convicted murderer nicknamed ‘Tookie,’ including the California Supreme Court, federal trial and appeals courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. From a legal point of view there’s very little to debate.
But for me, the story is not one of whether or not the rules have been followed, as surely they have, but one of what the purpose is of death penalties and prisons. They are connected, these points of view, for if you believe in prisons as punishments then the death penalty is just the most severe available retribution. But if you believe that prisons must primarily rehabilitate or they fail the civilizations that create them, then the death penalty crumbles, because it is irrevocable and rules out the improvement of the incarcerated.
A case can be made that Tookie is well down that rehabilitative road. Initially, imprisoned in the late eighties, Williams was so violent toward jailors and inmates that he was held in solitary confinement for six years. He studied the Bible intensively. In his words
“In order for me to experience redemption, I had to first develop a conscious,” to understand my own self-hatred. “That enabled me to gradually rectify my many faults ... only then was I able to reach out to others and make amends.”
Nice story . . . real tear-jerker, they ought to make a movie. In fact, the have, titled “Redemption,” starring Jamie Foxx, which is still not reason enough to turn aside from his execution, unless of course you happen to believe in redemption as a deliverance from sinful ways.
Without painting Tookie in too soft a color, he’s been without a single infraction since being released from solitary. Described now as a quiet, articulate man, Williams has committed himself to end the violent legacy he began.
In that quest he’s gained world-wide attention and praise for his work in prison, including the writing and publication of children's books advocating non-violence. He believes children need alternatives, having had none as a child. So he's written about alternatives to gangs, published an autobiography and videotaped a presentation that was shown at the first-ever gang summit in Los Angeles. All eyes from the audience were on him, captured by the power of speech of a man who had been where they were.
In 2004 he helped broker a peace agreement, The Tookie Protocol For Peace (don't you love the name?), for one of the deadliest and most infamous gang wars in the country, an ongoing bloodbath between the rival Bloods and Crips in California and the city of Newark, New Jersey. Williams had credentials. It was as a co-founder of the Crips nearly twenty-five years earlier that Tookie committed his capital crimes.
The divergence of opinion over Williams’ coming execution is as extreme as
- His nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2001, the first year by a member of the Swiss Parliament; four additional times by Notre Dame de Namur University Philosophy and Religion Professor Phil Gasper and other professors.
- “He’s a murderer,” argues Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents Of Murdered Children. “They should get on with carrying out the sentence.”
So, it comes down to the philosophy of prisons as well as the question of true redemption. Clemency by the governor would assure Williams a life lived within the walls of San Quentin Prison. Does writing and speaking and counseling an anti-gang message for nearly twenty years serve as evidence of rehabilitation? Or is it just a ruse to avoid execution?
Does it even matter? If the work is being done, does the inspiration make a difference?
If a tree falls in the forest . . .