Tookie Williams: Gang Founder Versus Nobel-Nominated Peacemaker
Dec. 8, 2005 — -- Stanley "Tookie" Williams' fight for clemency is a battle between his polar opposite legacies: the co-founder of the notorious Crips gang versus the Nobel Prize-nominated children's book author who warns against the dangers of gang life.
Time is running out for Williams, who is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13 for the 1979 slayings of four people in two separate robberies. California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court both have rejected bids to overturn his conviction. His last hope lies with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, met with Williams' lawyers and prosecutors in a closed-door clemency hearing today. If clemency is granted, Williams' death sentence would be commuted to life in prison without parole.
Williams' case has become a cause celebre because his quest for clemency has been championed by Hollywood and recording industry notables such as former "M*A*S*H" actor and longtime death penalty opponent Mike Farrell, rap superstar and former Crip Snoop Dogg, and Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx -- who portrayed the condemned inmate in the 2004 FX television movie "Redemption." Various activists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have held rallies on his behalf.
Williams and his lawyers continue to insist on his innocence. They say his efforts to steer others away from gang violence show that he deserves to be spared the death penalty.
"This is a life ... whose message has resonated with children, particularly with the people of California," said Peter Fleming Jr., one of Williams' lead attorneys, in a telephone news conference Wednesday. "This is a man who has not only redeemed himself, but he has sent his message of redemption and nonviolence to the people of California and all over the country."
But victims' rights advocates argue that Williams does not deserve mercy because he has not entirely renounced his legacy as a Crips co-founder and has never taken responsibility for the slayings.
"There are some people out there who speak of Mr. Williams like he was a deity, like Jesus Christ," said Jared Lewis, a former police officer and founder of Know Gangs, which offers seminars and expertise on gangs and gang culture. "They prop him up as if he was some sort of hero and he's really not. He's a murderer."
Williams has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison since 1981, when he was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the slaying of store clerk Albert Owens during the robbery of a 7-Eleven store and the shooting deaths of three members of the Yang family -- Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang and Yu-Chin Yang Lin -- who operated a Los Angeles motel.
Since his conviction, Williams has written nine books warning children and teenagers about the dangers of gang life. He's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times and for the Nobel Prize for literature once. In 1993, he videotaped a message at San Quentin that was shown to 400 gang members, and he helped broker a truce between the rival Crips and Bloods gangs during the first-ever gang summit in Los Angeles. He also has written a "peace protocol" to help rival gangs work out disagreements.
Williams, his supporters say, is a living example of the perils of gang life and can be much more valuable to enforcement officials -- and to impressionable youth -- if he is spared.
"We would make a huge mistake to take such a valuable asset, such a brilliant source of expertise and throw that life away," said Bruce Gordon, president and chief executive of the NAACP. "It'll cause the lives of others to be lost and that makes absolutely no sense to me."
"He is our secret weapon to help young African-Americans avoid gangs," Gordon continued. "We want to save his life so he can save the lives of others."
Other supporters indicate that Williams' execution would extinguish the hopes of imprisoned gang members considering reform, telling them that no one, no matter what they do to change their ways, is worth saving -- that there is no mercy for the reformed.
"It would send a terrible message if Stan is executed," said Cameron Sturdevant, an organizer of the "Save Tookie" campaign in California and anti-death penalty activist. "It would not only send out a message of vengeance, avenging violence with violence. But also, if someone like Stan can't get clemency, then who can?"
Williams' detractors say he is not a model of a convict deserving of clemency and that some of his supporters are using him -- as they have other condemned inmates -- to further their own cause. And while Williams has gained notoriety -- and some nationwide sympathy -- his alleged victims and their families have almost been forgotten.
"What's troubling is that you have these celebrities who take up this cause and they don't know anything about the case and they don't know the victims' names or have never met any of the victims' families," said Jared Lewis. "The bottom line is that we still have relatives of his victims who live with what he did every single day. The wounds for them today are as fresh as they were more than 25 years ago."
Lewis also suggests that Williams is opportunistic, taking credit for his good deeds while in prison but not his legacy as a Crips co-founder.
"His supporters say he is reformed, but Mr. Williams has never admitted responsibility [for the slayings] -- he hasn't taken that final step to full reform. And what I find interesting, that he takes credit for saving 1,500 lives but he doesn't mention anything about the lives lost because of the Crips," Lewis said.
Williams' lawyers say he has repeatedly apologized for his past in his children's books and messages to gang members. However, he believes that becoming a police informant would ruin his credibility with the children he is trying to help. They would see him as a snitch and not trust him.
"These children are listening to Stanley because of who he is and what he stands for," said Williams' attorney, Jonathan Harris.
No physical evidence tied Williams to the slayings. Shell casings connected a gun Williams owned to the crime scenes, but his attorneys have challenged the efficiency of the ballistics tests used at the time of his trial. Key prosecution witnesses said that they heard Williams admit to and brag about the slayings.
However, Williams' lawyers have argued that these witnesses had reason to lie: one was an alleged accomplice who was granted immunity while the other was a career criminal. In addition, Williams' attorneys have argued that the prosecution unfairly dismissed all potential black jurors, making the jury that ultimately convicted him racially biased.
All these appellate arguments have failed. Williams' best chance at life now lies with Schwarzenegger.
A California governor has not granted clemency since Ronald Reagan spared a prisoner in 1967. Since the United States reinstated capital punishment in 1976, 1,002 inmates have been executed while 230 have been granted clemency. But most of those came when former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates, citing an "arbitrary and capricious and therefore immoral" process.
California is a state that favors the death sentence, with 648 condemned inmates on death row. Eleven inmates have been executed since 1977, when the Legislature reinstated capital punishment. During his two years in office, Schwarzenegger has denied clemency twice despite the inmates' claims of mental illness, innocence and good behavior behind bars. Though some pundits have speculated that Schwarzenegger -- who's reeling from the defeat of four ballot measures he backed in a November special election, and has seen his popularity drop in the polls -- could grant Williams clemency to win favor with liberal voters, it would outrage his conservative Republican base.
While his supporters and opponents have loudly voiced their opinions about whether he deserves clemency, Williams has remained subdued in what may be the last days of his life. Over the phone, he has thanked his supporters at rallies and in interviews for their efforts, but is reluctant to talk about the execution. Gray-haired and bespectacled, Williams today appears to be a less menacing figure than the hulking gang founder of the 1970s. He also insists his heart has changed.
"There is no part of me that existed then that exists now," Williams told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "The majority of the detractors and naysayers ... it's difficult for them to recognize the redemption. They've been unable to stop smoking or drinking or lose weight and they're looking at me being in San Quentin and they say, 'This man is on death row convicted of killing four people, how can he be redeemed?' They can't believe that. They don't want to believe that. They would feel lesser about themselves."
Some believe that if Williams is executed, violence will break out in black communities. One Los Angeles-based advocate for the homeless would favor Schwarzenegger postponing Williams' execution in return for a peace treaty to stop violence in the black community.
"I'm willing to stay Tookie's execution for, let's say, 30 days, whatever. You guys decide, provided you stop the young black men from killing each other, in your community," said Ted Hayes. "You do that, [the legacy of] Tookie lives. You don't do that, Tookie dies. Make the blacks -- African-American leadership -- responsible."
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