Eyewitness to an Execution

ByABC News via GMA logo
December 11, 2005, 11:09 AM

— -- They were playing Celine Dion singing a Christmas song in the newsstand at Burbank Airport this morning. Frank Sinatra cheered the ticket counter while a woman walked through the terminal wearing a Santa hat. I was catching a plane to Oakland on my way to San Quentin to watch the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

Yesterday the California Supreme Court turned down a handful of last-minute appeals. His lawyers said they had a new witness who could help his case. More appeals are likely to be filed today, and of course, everyone is waiting to hear whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will grant a last-minute reprieve.

More legal appeals are likely to follow today to the federal appeals court, maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court.

My office sent me a list of appearances I have to make today: "World News," "Nightline," a one-hour radio special. I have to go through security at the prison no later than 9:30. The execution is set for 12:01 a.m. I'm expected to appear live on television at 1:30 a.m., and again at 4 a.m. for "Good Morning America."

A good friend of mine in the Los Angeles bureau sent me the account written by a man who volunteered to witness an execution in Oklahoma. I think it was in 1999.

He was very pro-death penalty and had nothing but vitriol for the reporters who were there, who, he assumed, were all liberals and against the death penalty. He almost had worse things to say about the reporters than he did about the condemned man.

Occasionally when you cover a story, you step on a land mine of issues that Americans are most passionate and angry about. It can be very unpleasant.

It came as a surprise to me that I was picked to be a witness to the execution of Tookie Williams. I was volunteered by my office.

Equally surprising was how quickly it became a matter of interest. I had several requests for interviews on how I felt about witnessing the death of another man. Not good, is the short answer.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams is 52 now, but back when he was a young man he was a co-founder of the notorious Crips street gang, which brought drugs, robbery and death not just to Los Angeles, but eventually to a lot of cities in America.

Williams was convicted in 1981 of the shotgun killings of four people in two separate robberies. He's spent 24 years on death row, unable to convince any court that he didn't do it, or that there was a flaw in his trial. He is scheduled to die in San Quentin prison by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. PT on Tuesday.

But Williams claims to be a changed and redeemed person. He spent the first half of his time in prison as a hardened criminal, and the second half, he says, trying to do some good for the world. He's found religion, and written nine books -- including an autobiography -- aimed at warning children away from a life in gangs. His supporters have nominated him many times for the Nobel Prize in both peace and literature, although that is not something hard to do.

He has a lot of celebrities pulling for him, including the Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who played him in a movie, and the rap singer Snoop Dogg, himself a former gang member who still flirts with the tough-guy image.

On Thursday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a private hearing, listening to arguments why Williams should, or should not, be spared.

The statistics for Williams are grim. No California governor has commuted a death sentence since Ronald Reagan in 1967.

The death penalty was ruled unconstitutional and suspended across the entire country for a while. Since its return in 1976, only 230 prisoners have had their sentences commuted. And not one of them was for redemption of character. The reasons given were doubt about guilt, mental incapacity of the condemned, or the governor's own dislike for the death penalty.

Illinois' Gov. George Ryan commuted 167 death sentences in 2000 after finding that too many innocent people were being sent to death. He called the death penalty "arbitrary, capricious and immoral." If you subtract the Ryan commutations, clemency is rare.

In the last few days, Williams has been put on the path to death. Every personal possession has been removed from his cell, including his toothbrush. He is repeatedly talked to and counseled about his impending death. When prison officials talk to him, all they talk about is death.

Late on Monday night, I will go through security at San Quentin prison and get on a bus with a bunch of other reporters to go to the death chamber and watch Williams die. They say we won't be allowed to bring anything with us. They will issue us a pencil and notebook.

I have seen people die before. I've seen them die by gunshot, disease and in a flaming car. I've seen the aftermath of a car bombing in Baghdad. But I've never seen a man walk into a room healthy, and be rolled out 15 minutes later dead on a gurney.

My wife says her stomach is churning at the prospect of me watching this. I've been thinking about how far my world is from Tookie's.

The last few days, I've been dancing with my 9-year-old daughter in the annual "Nutcracker" ballet at her school. It's incredibly sweet.

I've been thinking how I will never know Tookie Williams and his world, and he will never know mine.