Sinner, saint, Death Row inmate

Arnie could commute Tookie Williams’ date with death, but don’t count on it

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 10/27/2005

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By now, many know the story of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, courtesy of the smash performance by Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in the made-for-TV film, "Redemption."

The co-founder of the Crips street gang’s story reads like a gory tale of gang violence, mayhem and destruction. But it is a saintly tale of spiritual renewal, public service and human achievement. State officials, however, are pushing hard for Williams’ execution now that the US Supreme Court has refused to reopen his case.

That pretty much slammed the legal door shut on one of America’s most famous Death Row inmates. Convicted of four murders, Williams has languished on Death Row for nearly a quarter of a century. He contends that he got a bad shake. A white jury convicted him. He got a sub-par legal defense, and his case was based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants.

A national campaign has been launched to prod Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Tookie clemency. California is one of 14 states where governors have sole authority to commute a condemned killer’s sentence. But that would buck precedent. In the nearly four decades since then Gov. Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a brain-damaged Death Row inmate, no California governor has waived a death sentence. And Reagan took action only because the latest scientific test to determine brain damage was not available at the time of the condemned killer’s trial.

Tookie, on the other hand, seems a prime candidate for clemency. His prize-winning children’s books, Nobel Peace Prize nomination and his messages to young people against violence have been the stuff of public acclaim. His radical, life-affirming volte face has made him a near-universal symbol of hope that even the most hardened, bitter and incorrigible street thug can find salvation.

But that’s not enough. And Schwarzenegger has said as much. He has already flatly refused to grant clemency to two condemned murderers. Both times, he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes.  

When it comes to condemned killers, no matter what the circumstances of the crime, how young they were when they committed murder, how much praise they garnered from judges and prison officials, how many college degrees they got in prison, or that they had made Mother Teresa-like beatific conversions during their long stints in prison, they still must pay the supreme price.

Schwarzenegger is not unique among governors when it comes to quashing clemency appeals. During the past decade, only five Death Row inmates have had their sentences commuted in any single year. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of virtually all condemned killers before departing office in 2003. That was the rare exception to the unwritten rule that governors don’t grant clemency. They’re scared stiff of being tagged as soft on crime and being insensitive to victims. In the 40 years prior to Ryan’s action, only one Death Row inmate in Illinois received executive clemency.  Since Ryan’s headline grabbing and humane action, only seven other persons have gotten their death sentences commuted nationally.

Even if Schwarzenegger were inclined to grant Williams clemency, he’s trapped by the relentless politics of crime and punishment, and his nosedive in popularity. His ratings wallow at the bottom of the tank with President Bush’s. A majority of California voters have already blasted him for ramming a costly, wasteful and unnecessary special election onto the Nov. 8 California ballot.

Williams’ personal turnabout is exemplary and sparing his life is the morally the right thing to do. Clemency is not the same as freedom. He will still likely spend the rest of his days in prison. But 2006 is an election year in California and the last thing that Republican Schwarzenegger can afford to be plastered with is the soft-on-crime label for sparing the life of a black, ex-gang leader and convicted murderer.

Playing hardball with the lives of prisoners that have turned their lives around may seem like a sure ticket for a politician to snatch votes, but it’s still bad public policy. With the handful of convicted killers who have shown by their deeds that they have redeemed themselves, it makes no sense for a governor to hold them hostages to past political fears. Williams is not Willie Horton, the felon paroled by former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis who killed a woman soon after being released. Schwarzenegger surely knows that.

Yet, as long as he thinks that he is, prisoners that have shown by remorse and deeds that they can be model and productive citizens will be denied the second chance they’ve worked hard for.

Tookie will likely be one of them. 

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and social issues commentator, is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press). He hosts the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Lucy Florence Coffeehouse, 3351 W. 43rd St., Los Angeles.



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