- Friday 28 October, 2005
To Squiggy from Mike,
Because there’s been a significant reaction to the press coverage of my opposition to the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, I thought it might be a good idea to post a general statement for the benefit of anyone who has a question or concern.
I thought it was already quite clear that I oppose the death penalty. That means I’m against all state killing regardless of whether the individual in question is guilty or innocent. But some of those who have communicated their upset either aren’t aware of that or feel this case should be an exception. Let me try to be more clear.
I believe killing is wrong. That being so, I believe that the state (or the people in a civilized society) have a special responsibility to always act in a manner that honors the principles of humanity that underpin our society. For the state to kill teaches that killing is appropriate under certain circumstances and, by extension, provides justification to those who believe that their particular case or circumstance warrants it as well. The young, in particular, learn behavior from us and this requires that we always reach for the higher standard.
There’s much more to be said, of course, but I don’t want to go on endlessly. I realize that some people believe it is right for the state to execute those who have committed heinous crimes, but one of the problems they have is that the system necessary to do so must be perfect. It must be error-proof so that we don’t kill innocent people or kill some and not others who do the same or worse things. It must be fair and even-handed, colorblind and absent prejudice of any type. It must protect the rights of all equally and must not allow ambition or dishonesty or bias or money or any of the myriad problems that can arise in a system run by humans to corrupt it.
Unfortunately, our system does not measure up. It is corrupted by all the above elements and, in addition, it makes mistakes. In recent years, 122 people who have been tried, convicted, sentenced to death by a ‘jury of their peers’ and lived in terror as they awaited execution, have been found to be wrongly convicted and freed. What we don’t know is how many other innocent people did not have the benefit of a caring person to go to bat for them and died at the hands of the state.
Until and unless we can make the system perfect I do not see how anyone, no matter how much he or she believes it appropriate, can justify its use..
That’s my general view. Now let’s go to the specifics of the case in question: Stanley Tookie Williams.
As many seem to know, Stanley was one of the founders of the “Crips,” a notorious street gang that began in Los Angeles and has spread quite widely. He was an angry young man who did a lot of bad things, things of which he is not proud. As you can imagine, he was considered dangerous and was someone in whom the police had an interest, someone they wanted to put away. He was arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of four people in two different robberies. He has consistently, from the time he was first arrested until this day, denied killing them.
Because I wasn’t there I have no idea whether he killed them or not. What I do know is that the prosecutor trying the case excused blacks from the jury pool, a practice in some jurisdictions that has since been held unconstitutional by higher courts. I know that the prosecutor used highly charged terms with clear racial implications in securing a conviction. I know Stanley was forced to sit before the jury in chains and shackles, a tactic intended to inspire fear and loathing in them. And I know that in examining the case later, a federal appeals court judge said the conviction was based on “circumstantial evidence and the testimony of witnesses whose credibility was highly suspect.” Circumstantial evidence means there was nothing that specifically tied Stanley to the crime. The “highly suspect” witnesses were people who, as a result of their testimony, either were set free or received reduced sentences as a result of their cooperation. This practice is known as “snitch testimony” and is inherently untrustworthy. “Snitches” have corrupted numerous convictions and resulted in many people being later found innocent. We don’t know how many they have killed. In some instances, notably in Los Angeles County, prosecutors have been exposed as using “snitches” they knew were liars to help them secure a conviction.
So, as said, I don’t know if Stanley committed these murders or not, but it is interesting to note that he has been consistent in denying them, even after he went through the extraordinary change he has experienced and acknowledged and apologized for his behavior during his lawless years.
I’ve met Stanley and found him a very impressive man. I know of his experience in prison and the process of change that began when he spent years in “the hole,” solitary confinement of the most drastic kind. I know of the Bible and the dictionary he asked for and the process he went through to teach himself to read and ultimately to write. I know of the studying he has done in order to become a better man. I know of the positive influence he has become for young people all over the world through the books he has written and the letters and speaking he has done (over the telephone from death row to schools, organizations and groups of kids who want to hear from him).
I know that he has had an extraordinarily powerful impact in many sectors. His counseling brought about a gang truce in Los Angeles and another one in Newark, New Jersey. The Internet Project for Street Peace he founded has reached young people as far away as Switzerland and South Africa. In all of these efforts he counsels against gangs, against violence; he encourages kids to stay in school and not be seduced by the ethic of the street life. His books, the “Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence” series, deal with gangs, drugs, self-esteem, violence, choosing the right friends and other important aspects of the lives of ghetto kids. “Life in Prison” and “Blue Rage, Black Redemption” are books that deal with his life experience. All of these have had a profound effect on countless numbers of young people’s lives.
So, yes, I believe Governor Schwarzenegger should commute Stanley’s sentence to Life in Prison Without Possibility of Parole so that he can continue to do the good and effective work he has been doing. There is no value to us or to our society in killing this man.