Eyewitness to an Execution

ByReporter's Notebook by BRIAN ROONEY via logo

— -- ABC News correspondent Brian Rooney witnessed the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

Tookie Williams was declared dead at 12:35 am. It took 36 minutes and 15 seconds from when he walked into the room to when he was dead. It took quite awhile, more than 20 minutes to insert the needles. All that time Williams was awake, aware and speaking to the attendants. After awhile he seemed agitated that it took so long. When the drugs started to flow he tried to keep his head up, as if to see his five friends who were there. When his chest and stomach stopped heaving, we watched and waited several minutes in complete silence until the curtain was a drawn on Tookie's body.

Another briefing by Vernell Crittendon, prison spokesman. At 11 they will take all our personal property, pencils, notebooks, rings, telephones. Everything. "You will be given seven to eight lined sheets of paper and a number two pencil. You will be able to bring in a watch."

"The protocol inside the witness gallery is that you may not step down off your riser. No loud, open sobbing will be tolerated. You will be removed immediately and without discussion."

Time of death will be announced. "We will stand there approximately 30 seconds and watch the motionless remains."

Crittendon says Williams gave his last statement 40 minutes ago and we will not hear him speak.

Hanging out in a press room inside prison gates. Accredited reporters are mixed with those who, like me, will witness the execution.

Williams did refuse a final meal. He had breakfast, including oatmeal, and has had mostly just water through the day. He's asked for cartons of milk. He's been alone in the death cell since 6 p.m. The witnesses were briefed by a prison psychologist who said, "You are about to witness something highly unusual. It's like no other room you've ever been in in your life." He said that if we are uncomfortable we are free to leave.

Gone through first level security. Still have my Blackberry. I'm supposed to have a gold badge but they ran out. The took a white one and wrote "gold" on it. They also stamped my hand with ink seen only under black light. I asked if that was my exit key and they said no glow, no go. Meeting other reporter witnesses now. Not the only one who was volunteered for this.

Helicopters are sweeping the hills with lights. SWAT teams are cruising in full combat gear. There are some heated arguments in the crowd; some people trying to shout down others. There are also some quiet discussions with differing points of view. I'm at the west gate now, preparing to go inside. I've called my wife to say goodnight. I won't be able to call out again until it's done.

There were many speakers tonight, and some heated rhetoric. Some called the scheduled execution a "targeted assassination." Joan Baez is singing now. The song is "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." Her voice carries, and it's a beautiful thing. The crowd is silent as she intones, "Comin' for to carry me home."

The crowd numbers several hundred now, a mix of reporters and protesters. Mike Farrell of TV's "*M * A * S * H" fame is here, advocating against the death penalty. Jesse Jackson is walking through the crowd and hugging supporters. Someone just waded in with a 10-foot tall puppet of Gandhi. Rap and hip-hop music is playing. There are some school-age children as well as members of the Black Muslims.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has turned away Wlliams' final appeal to the Supreme Court. It was Williams' last chance, and not a good one at that. It's night now and protesters are gathering. You can see ferry boats out in the bay.

Working here is difficult. A narrow road leads to the east gate of San Quentin, and it is choked with reporters, cameras and satellite trucks. The police are enforcing the no parking rules, forcing some reporters to park a mile away and walk back in.

When there are this many people all trying to use cell phones, it gets hard to find a signal.

It is cold and gray here on the San Francisco Bay. Getting colder. San Quentin is like a yellow castle -- gothic prison architecture with enormous buttresses.

Jesse Jackson has been here all day. He walked with a group of protesters across the Golden Gate Bridge, then went into the prison for one last visit with Tookie Williams. I've seen Jackson in many places, Chicago, Los Angeles and now here in San Francisco.

There's always a scrum of reporters around him straining to hear what he has to say. He came out of the prison just as the announcement was released that Gov. Schwarzenegger had denied clemency. Jackson held sway with many cameras. He said, "I'm obviously very disappointed that the governor has missed a moment to choose life over death, missed a moment to choose redemption over revenge." He is often poetic, and easily quotable.

Jackson went back inside after hearing clemency was denied. He came out when it was nearly dark and said he had been the one to tell Williams.

There have been just a scattering of protesters so far. One man carries a sign that says, "Jesus taught redemption, not revenge." Another, "Jesus Walks 4 God."

The road is closed now, but we expect it to open in a few hours and fill with protesters.

There are a couple of reporters here who have witnessed executions before. They have nothing good to say about it.

I am supposed to go to the west gate, no later than 9:30 p.m. to go through security, and witness the execution.

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.