Capital Punishment Debate: STARING DEATH IN THE FACE ; A Date Has Been Set for the Execution of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams, Even Though He Is a Reformed Character Praised by George Bush for Renunciating Violence. Andrew Gumbel Reports

By Gumbel, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), October 27, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Capital Punishment Debate: STARING DEATH IN THE FACE ; A Date Has Been Set for the Execution of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams, Even Though He Is a Reformed Character Praised by George Bush for Renunciating Violence. Andrew Gumbel Reports


Gumbel, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)


More that a month ago, Stanley 'Tookie' Williams was presented with a Presidential honour for his work speaking out against gang culture from his very particular vantage point on California's Death Row.

The Call to Service award came with a letter from George W Bush praising him for demonstrating 'the outstanding character of America', the consequence of years of activism by Williams to stop young people following the self- destructive path he did in the badlands of south central Los Angeles, where he was a founding member of the Crips in the early 1970s.

But his week Williams got a startlingly different piece of news. A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles told him his execution date had been set for 13 December after the exhaustion of the last of his appeals.

Bizarrely, Judge William Pounders made it almost seem as though he was doing Williams a favour. 'This case has taken over 24 years to get to this point,' he told the court. 'That is a long delay in itself and I would hate to add to that.'

Such are the ironies of a case that seems destined to stir up an extraordinary clamour among death penalty activists " pro and anti " over the next few weeks and draw in an international cast of characters who will be pleading with California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to exercise his power of clemency and recognise the value of keeping Williams alive.

The former gang chief is about as close as one can imagine to a poster- child for rehabilitation. Not only has Williams renounced his past and disavowed his reputation, acquired during his teens and twenties, as a muscle-man capable of terrifying all who dared to cross him or his fellow gang members. He has also spent the past decade campaigning actively against gang violence, turning out 10 books directed at children and teenagers that have addressed everything from the grief of losing friends and family members to the privations of his 9ft-by-4ft cell at San Quentin.

He has drawn up a protocol for ending gang warfare that has been applied from New Jersey to Switzerland and South Africa. And he has been nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize and, rather less probably, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mario Fehr, among six members of the Swiss parliament who nominated Williams for the Peace Prize in 2000, singled him out for praise for his 'extraordinary youth violence prevention and intervention work'.

Yet Williams risks falling victim to the casual bureaucratic cruelty of the American criminal justice system. Several appeal courts have agreed he is a ripe candidate for clemency, but they have refused to quash his death sentence themselves on procedural grounds.

Essentially, they have not found sufficient reason to believe Williams when he insists on his innocence in the four murders for which he was convicted in 1981. That is not to say there are not problems with the evidence against Williams, or with the manner in which his original trial was conducted. Several of the witnesses who testified under oath that he had shot dead a convenience store employee and then, 12 days later, gunned down the owners of a south central motel and their daughter have turned out, on close examination, to be problematic. As the federal appeals court noted in 2002, several were informants with 'less-than-clean backgrounds and incentives to lie to obtain leniency from the state in either charging or sentencing'.

During the trial, the prosecutor, Robert Martin, found reasons to dismiss the only three black members of the jury pool and constructed a closing argument which sounded much like an appeal to racist stereotypes. Mr Martin described Williams, shackled in the defendant's box, as a 'Bengal tiger in captivity in a zoo' and said the jury needed to imagine him in his natural 'habitat' which was like 'going into the back country, into the hinterlands'.

In two subsequent cases, Mr Martin was rebuked by the California appeals courts for using race as a criterion in jury selection and had two murder convictions overturned on those grounds.

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Capital Punishment Debate: STARING DEATH IN THE FACE ; A Date Has Been Set for the Execution of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams, Even Though He Is a Reformed Character Praised by George Bush for Renunciating Violence. Andrew Gumbel Reports
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