Redemption vs. Justice
Most people take no solace in the death of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Mr. Williams died by lethal injection in the early hours of December 13 in the death chamber at San Quentin Prison in California.
Strapped to a gurney, medical technicians struggled to locate a vein on the massive forearms of the convicted murderer. It apparently took long enough that Mr. Williams began to express visible frustration at the difficulty encountered by the team.
The effort to spare Mr. Williams from his court-ordered fate was historic in its scope and breadth. Referred to as a "cause célèbre," high profile anti-death penalty advocates stood alongside Hollywood stars to argue for mercy in sparing Mr. Williams' life.
Former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell, an ardent death penalty opponent, movie star Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in a made-for TV movie, and former Crips gang member-turned rap star Snoop Dogg joined Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in voicing opposition to the impending sentence throughout the last few weeks.
Truth be told, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton waited until the final hours to appear on-scene, since the final hours represented their best chance of scoring valued television time. That surprises no one who has spent any time watching these gentlemen.
The effort to seek mercy for Mr. Williams was unprecedented. A team of lawyers, all specialists in death penalty cases rushed from state appeals court to the California Supreme Court, from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. In each case, judges found no reason to suggest that the punishment handed down by a jury of Mr. Williams peers was lacking.
It surely wasn't for lack of trying, though. The arguments ranged from Mr. Williams' protests of innocence on the original murder charges (four of them) to the convoluted claim that since Mr. Williams had discouraged young children from joining the murderous drug gang he had helped create, he should be considered a valued literary talent.
Mr. Williams will always be known as the co-founder of the Crips, who along with rival street gang the Bloods, ruled urban southern California streets through the 80's and 90's.
The Crips and Bloods were noteworthy for the unprecedented level of violence that accompanied their drug trade. Drive-by shootings may be the single biggest trend they created, and a number of multi-millionaire rappers attribute their street experience to Mr. Williams' tutelage.
In the final hours of Mr. Williams' life, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued his written opinion on the formal clemency request from the legal team. The governor's judgment resulted from a weeklong case review, including an hour-long hearing with both proponents and opponents.
In his written opinion, Governor Schwarzenegger cited several principal reasons for his findings. He found the case file to reflect a full and fair trial, with competent counsel and a convincing pile of evidence presented by the prosecutor but not diminished by the defense. One of the more disturbing aspects were witness statements containing Williams' own words about the killings, including a description of the final gasping groans of one of the victims.
Governor Schwarzenegger also questioned the talk of atonement or reformation by reading Mr. Williams' prison writing. If he did, as claimed, atone for his prior crimes, why was there no record of an apology for the families of the four dead store and hotel workers?
In 1979, Stanley "Tookie" Williams entered a 7-11 convenience store in Whittier, CA, and shot clerk Albert Owens. He then held-up a Los Angeles motel, eventually killing owners Yen-I Yang, his wife Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, and their daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin.
The bottom line on this tragedy will always fall along these lines: if you support the rule of law as written and practiced, then the death penalty looms large over the commission of a crime involving the death of a human being.
Improvements in DNA testing may resolve the inevitable question over carrying out a death sentence where some doubt may exist over the guilt or innocence of a convicted killer. Death penalty opponents are quick to point out that 123 former death row inmates are free today because of DNA evidence absolving them of guilt.
If, however, you feel that man is not in a position to pass the ultimate judgment over another man, then you'll always oppose the sentence, regardless of issues such as race and mental capacity.
The crowd of voices claiming merit in Stanley Williams' life cited his thoughtful children's books, urging youngsters to avoid a life of crime, violence, and drugs. Apparently, his nomination for the Nobel Prize was - to some - in itself sufficient justification for allowing him to remain alive to serve out his sentence in the California penal system.
As much as those voices celebrate Williams' writings, we owe it to Albert Owens and the Yang family to honor their memory and deeply mourn their tragic passing at the hands of a cold-blooded killer. It would be a horribly unforgivable to place the redemptive value of Stanley "Tookie" Williams ahead of the lives of the four people who died at his hand, and were thus denied the chance to show us what value they ultimately offered.