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A Faerie's Farthing

Flitting through the internets looking for sparkly bits. All content mine and not to be reproduced without permission.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

"People forget that redemption is tailor-made for the wretched."

"People forget that redemption is tailor-made for the wretched."

It is 11:25 PST as I begin to write this. By the time I'm finished, Tookie Williams will be dead. Gov. Schwarzenegger has so far denied clemency; the execution is scheduled for midnight.

At 11:30 p.m., Williams will be given a new pair of denim jeans and a new blue work shirt to wear.

At 11:45 p.m., the first group of witnesses will be led into the room where the death chamber is and positioned by guards on a set of risers or a railing along the thick glass windows of the chamber. These will be state officials, lawyers and people who have asked to watch the execution on behalf of Williams or his victims.

At 11:55 p.m., media witnesses will be escorted in and positioned on risers. Nobody may move after they have been placed. Fifty witnesses total are allowed, 17 of those from the press.

Precisely at midnight, prison officials will make one last call to the state Department of Justice and Department of Corrections headquarters to determine if any last-second stays have been issued. That process usually takes less than a minute, and at 12:01 a.m. Williams will be led by three guards into the lime-green execution chamber through its only door.


Beyond the macabre nature of this bizarre state ritual, I think executing Tookie is a colossally stupid move; what better spokesman for avoiding the gangster life could we possibly have? Who else could be as effective in persuading troubled youth against the lifestyle?

As dusk on Monday consumed this city, and street lamps cast a jaundice film over his Christmas tree lot at the corner of Florence and Vermont, Kenneth Smith was thinking about how much he owed the man they were about to execute at San Quentin.

It felt strange, knowing Stanley Tookie Williams was going to die, hearing the ghoulish hourly countdown on the news-radio stations. Because in some ways, Smith felt as if he owed his own life to the man who had co-founded the Crips gang 35 years ago.

``Growing up, I read the books he wrote in prison, and they helped keep me from joining gangs,'' said Smith, 19
, about the same age Williams was when he unleashed his violence in this neighborhood of neon-screaming liquor stores and an endless latticework of burglar bars. ``He showed me clearly what would come from becoming a gang-banger -- a life in jail, or worse. Now they're killing him, even though he turned his life around in prison and reformed. Isn't that what prison is supposed to do?''


That all depends on who you ask, I guess. The debate over reformation vs. retribution is certainly nothing new; I'm sure it's as old as the death penalty itself. I happen to believe that execution serves no purpose, save a vengeful bloodlust. This is based on three facts:

1) Execution does not bring the victims back to life

2) Execution accomplishes nothing in the realm of public safety that life in prison can't deliver

3) Execution is in no way effective as a deterrent against crime

Following through with Tookie William's death sentence will have noticable effects, namely that it is likely to spur riots in LA and other California cities. It will rob movements to curtail gang activity of what is inarguably their most powerful voice. At the same time, it reduces the state and its death penalty supporters to the same level of barbarism, possibly even lower; one cannot deny that this is coldly premeditated.

Executing Tookie Williams, or anyone, denies all of us a piece of our humanity.

Across town in East Los Angeles, the founder of a well-known gang-intervention program said the only thing worse than the four 1979 murders that landed Williams on Death Row was the governor's failure to prevent yet another life from being extinguished.

``This could have been a moment of courage for the governor,'' said the Rev. Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in 1988 to help youth stay out of gangs. ``He could have simply said, `I've changed my mind. I've seen the light. Nobody will be executed as long as I'm governor.'

Instead, said Boyle, ``I now worry about Arnold's salvation more than Stanley's.''

The irony was obvious: Boyle has devoted his life to trying to extract young men from the gang culture that Williams helped create. And he worried about the message that the governor's decision sends to teenagers lured by the gang lifestyle.

``Homebody Industries,'' said its founder, ``stands for redemption and second chances. If you execute him, you execute that, too.''


What a message indeed: violence is the solution to violence, reformation is worthless and efforts to atone mean nothing.

Civil rights leaders today blasted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last-minute denial of clemency for Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams as a shrewd political move that ignored the convicted killer's record of ``redemption'' for having denounced gang life and worked from prison to keep kids away from them.

``We are deeply saddened by the governor's decision to not grant clemency; this is a serious blow to our efforts to eliminate gangs,'' said Alice Huffman, NAACP California state conference president. ``We believe every life Tookie is able to draw away from gang life is invaluable, clearly the governor does not.''

...Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP president and CEO, said in a teleconference with reporters that Schwarzenegger's decision sent a horrible message to the African-American community.

``It sends a message that the criminal justice system in California and across this country will continue to look at African Americans differently,'' Gordon said. ``There is absolutely no recognition given to redemption.''

Gordon also blasted the governor's decision as a political one:

``Let's face it, he is a first-term governor who wants a second term. He is going to make decisions that appeal to those who got him into office and those who could return him to office,'' Gordon said. ``I view it as a political decision.''


Regardless of whether or not Ahnuld is playing politics with human life, the decision to deny Williams clemency speaks to a certain contempt for the rule of law:

Williams lawyers, who said they based his case for clemency primarily on his redemption, said they would petition the governor again today for an 11th-hour stay because three inmates who were in prison with Williams' accuser have come forward in recent days with evidence they say is exculpatory. Williams' lawyer, Jonathan Harris, said the governor already had that information when he made his decision not to grant clemency. But Harris said he would nonetheless ask Schwarzenegger to reconsider.

Harris said he will also ask the governor to reconsider because the state legislature is scheduled to debate a moratorium on the death penalty in January. It would be ``a shame,'' Harris said, for Williams to be executed before legislators had a chance to vote. Harris also did not rule out additional requests later today to the state Supreme Court, or even to the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.


It is a sad day in California and America when exculpatory evidence and the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in a matter of weeks are considered moot points in a bid for clemency. Mr. Gordon's ideas seem a little less far-fetched in this context. But context, sadly, seems sorely lacking in this debate; many people do not consider beyond the fact that he founded the crips. That's enough for him to bear responsibility for the whole of gang violence. Never mind that was the action of a troubled 19 year old and never mind his renunciation of the gangster life and his efforts to keep people from it; what he did thirty-five years ago is all that matters.

The real question though, is what purpose does this, or any, execution serve? But Tookie has a few others, as well as some incredibly poignant and eloquent thoughts to share.

On the Case Against Him:

"I always ask the question: Can a black man in America receive justice? I can say to you or anybody else that the answer is absolutely no. There’s a myriad of things that bring me to this conclusion — prosecutorial misconduct, the biased selection of juries, the issues of informants, the exclusion of exculpatory evidence, illegal interrogation of witnesses. It’s commonplace. It’s deeply ingrained in the California criminal justice system."

On the Families of the Victims:

"To threaten me with death does not accomplish the means of the criminal justice system or satiate those who think my death or my demise will be a closure for them. Their loved ones will not rise up from the grave and love them. I wish they could. I sympathize or empathize with everyone who has lost a loved one. But I didn’t do it. My death would not mollify them."

On His Work With Children:

"They can empathize with me. I pretty much experienced all the madness they’re going through."

"I feel a sense of bliss within. I like to see the viability of youth."

"I don’t take myself seriously. I do take my helping children and writing books exceedingly seriously."


On What He Would Have Said to Mr. Schwarzenegger:

"First and foremost, I would say that I’m innocent. Second, I believe that if I’m allowed to get a clemency or an indefinite stay, it would allow me to continue to proliferate my positive message, including a collaboration with the N.A.A.C.P., to create a violence-prevention message for at-risk youth."


His message is, indeed, infinitely more promising than the one sent by ending his life:

"The least I can do is maintain my dignity. I confront madness with integrity. I don’t walk around like some shuffling black man."

"I’ll go through it with dignity, with integrity, with love and bliss in my heart. I smile at everything, and I’m quite sure I’ll smile then, too. I smile to myself, and I don’t worry about it."

..."People forget that redemption is tailor-made for the wretched."


Let that be one of the myriad lessons taken from Tookie's life and example. I hope he finds peace.




[UPDATE] And that's it. Tookie was executed shortly after midnight. Please visit the Western Prison Project's website. They are a non-profit group whose goal is to reform our prison system.

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