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Clemency for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, by former 60's activist & State Senator Tom Hayden
Is it the state’s interest to inflict violence by execution against an inmate who is himself a resource against violence? Or should “Tookie” Williams’ sentence be to work against violence for the rest of his days? I urge you to accept a standard of reasonable doubt. Should a man be executed where there are such significant differences of opinion over what his fate should be?
Hon. Arnold Schwarzenegger
State of California
Oct. 29, 2005
Clemency for Stanley “Tookie” Williams
I want to share my thoughts and experiences with you in the matter of Stanley “Tookie” Williams. Since you will receive many legal arguments about the case or the merits of the death penalty, this letter will focus on the “Tookie” Williams I actually know. In the course of researching a book on street gangs, I interviewed him for two hours on San Quentin’s Death Row in late 2001. In addition, I have read thousands of pages of briefs about the case, and interviewed numerous people in Watts and South Central about his role in the Crips.
I can say without question that “Tookie” Williams has changed his life direction, beginning about 1992.
I can say without question that his advocacy of peace among gang members during the past decade has saved lives.
If you choose to execute him, you will be executing a living resource of great value in the long struggle to prevent gang violence.
His execution will not deter the growth of street gangs.
It may provide an Old Testament sense of justice for some victims, and satisfy prosecutors who want to see the “godfather” of the Crips put to death. It is not the interest of the people of California to satisfy those needs. Nor is it in your interest as a national and global representative of our country.
I am not known for being an active death penalty abolitionist, though I pursued funding to study a moratorium as a legislator. But I believe that in this case, the interest of the people of California is in clemency. In granting clemency, you are not required to release him, but you have the power to make him continue his counseling against gangs and violence as a community benefit and an example of restorative justice.
Taking “Tookie” Williams’ life would be an awesome personal responsibility for any governor. You yourself know the value of inner city youth programs. You yourself stand for a return to rehabilitation as a cornerstone of our system. It must be apparent to you that “Tookie” Williams can reach out to kids in places where social workers fear to tread, police can rarely penetrate, and parents throw up their hands.
Even assuming what the prosecution says about his guilt – and like many others, I am not in agreement with them - “Tookie” Williams cannot be a resource for violence prevention if he is dead.
Is it the state’s interest to inflict violence by execution against an inmate who is himself a resource against violence? Or should “Tookie” Williams’ sentence be to work against violence for the rest of his days?
I urge you to accept a standard of reasonable doubt. Should a man be executed where there are such significant differences of opinion over what his fate should be? The current headlines proclaim him a “killer” and leave the public impression that the only choices are execution or release to the streets. But in a case surrounded by doubt, clemency allows a governor more nuanced choices, including life without parole.
I have said, based on all I know, that “Tookie” Williams has changed. On the other side are those who might agree that he has changed, but are unforgiving nevertheless. Others simply deny that he has changed at all, offering no evidence for their assertions. [I remember intervening as a senator in 2000 when San Quentin authorities were required to remove from their files an assertion that “Tookie” Williams was still a Crip member, long after his public departure from the gang.]
There are prosecutors who demand that “Tookie” Williams drop his innocence claim and acknowledge guilt and remorse as the only definition of personal change that matters. This is not so legally, and I would remind you that the entire Rampart scandal began with judge and prosecution sentencing a young man to 23 years behind bars in large part because of his refusal to express remorse. That young man, a paraplegic due to a Rampart police shooting, was eventually freed and declared innocent.
The law is flexible on the defining what constitutes an inmate’s change of behavior. In this matter, we know that “Tookie” Williams, at the request of Tony Bogard and others, communicated a strong message of support for the truce between Crips and Bloods and the formation of Hands Across Watts in 1992, thirteen years ago, and has been pursuing the same mission ever since. The citywide gang homicide rate dropped from the 800 level to half that rate in a few short years; in South Central from 466 in 1992 to 223 by 1998. The LA Times reported that “police and residents of Watts confirm that gang-on-gang slayings over emotional issues of turf boundaries or gang clothing have virtually disappeared.” Of course “Tookie” Williams was not the primary cause of these truces, but he definitely was part of the turn toward peace that occurred among thousands of young people whom the authorities considered incorrigible. Is that not evidence of change? Is that not proof of community benefit? Does a consistent message for over a decade count for nothing?
As for his motivation, I can only report what he told me. Many individuals, including icons like Malcolm X, only begin to change when they “hit bottom.” For inmates like “Tookie”, that sometimes means the Security Housing Unit, or “the hole”, where they suffer extreme and prolonged deprivation and isolation. Many never recover from the experience. “Tookie” Williams spent six years in “the hole” before he began an awakening. In a darkness analogous to Plato’s cave or Dante’s cold lowest depths, “Tookie” told me he discovered “how to reason.” An illiterate, he learned to spell and form words. He asked if I knew the word “anachronism” and when I nodded, he said “I think we were an anachronism. We were meant to be born in a warrior era.”
With reason and a dictionary, he studied the history of Africans in America and, as he told me, learned “we’re not worthless individuals driven by self-hate.” This is very much the recovery experience described by Dr. James Gilligan, who interviewed convicted murderers for thirty years, and described his findings in Violence, Our Deadly Epidemic; see also The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Luis Rodriguez, La Vida Loca, for other transformation stories. They are the living dead, engulfed in shame, lacking nonviolent tools of expression, finding respect and reputation only through violence. They project their self-hate onto external victims but also onto themselves. Nevertheless, some of them find their way back.
“Tookie” Williams transitioned through all that madness, largely on his own. His path from the hole led to the discovery that he was endowed with conscience, he told me. From there he experienced remorse for years of “megalomania” in which “violence was the answer to everything” in his life. It was among the living dead in San Quentin that he found he could keep little homeboys on the outside from falling into the same tomb. “I’m not doing this to improve my case”, he told me. “I am doing this for my own redemption”, so that he could better face the possibility of death.
“Tookie” Williams is a different man than half a lifetime ago. But whether one agrees or not with my assessment of his inner life, there are many in the mainstream who argue for clemency. On Sept. 10, 2002, the same U.S Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld his conviction [on a divided vote] added that “Williams’ good works and accomplishments since incarceration make him a worthy candidate for the exercise of gubernatorial discretion”, or clemency. This gesture was, as far as I know, unprecedented; the prosecutor said, “I have never seen anything like this, certainly nothing so blatant or specific.”
The Los Angeles Times editorialized that while “Tookie” Williams is “no candidate for sainthood, he is one for clemency. The effort that he has put into undoing that harm is a powerful argument for saving his life.”
An emeritus professor of criminology, Lewis Yablonsky, has interviewed “Tookie” Williams in prison and proposes that “he…remain in prison and could be a positive force and influence on young gangsters in the prison community if his sentence was commuted to life without parole.”
Any of the front-line street workers attempting to prevent gang violence will tell you the same thing if they are asked. In particular, I ask that you review the letter of Donald Bakeer, a former teacher and an author, who has written about the Crips’ world for many years,
Before a decision is reached, Governor, may I suggest you invite a diverse panel – those actually trying to end gang violence everyday in LA - to share with you the value of keeping someone like “Tookie” Williams alive for another two decades of peace work compared with executing him on the eve of Christmas. I also suggest that you meet with Jamie Foxx privately to understand his insights into “Tookie” Williams character when he was preparing for playing his role in the Fx film “Redemption.”
Thank you for your consideration of this letter. If I can be of further service, I am always available.