As I begin to write this, Stanley "Tookie" Williams has just under three hours to live.
Williams was convicted of killing four people in 1979. Apart from a last-minute claim of new evidence, his attorneys have never really argued that Williams did not commit the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. Williams is also known for starting, or at least being one of the founding figures of, the Crips gang in Los Angeles, which has been the source of immeasurable murder and violence for the last three decades.
Williams was sentenced to death in April 1981, seven months before I was born. When he first entered prison, he seemed just as irredeemable a person as outside bars. In 1988, he was transferred into solitary confinement for continuing leadership in the Crips, including directing the stabbing of a fellow inmate.
But hereís where Williamsís story moves in an unpredictable direction. Beginning during his time in solitary confinement, and with the assistance of a writer who came to interview him in 1992, Williams turned from a life devoted to and immersed in gang warfare to spending years of public service urging young people not to join gangs. He wrote a series of childrenís books describing his experiences with surprising candor, telling the reader not to follow in his footsteps. He developed a structure of agreements to guide rival gangs into truces. He helped in the founding of an afterschool program called the Internet Project for Street Peace.
This, of course, doesnít matter for the purposes of appealing his sentence through the courts. There really, to be fair, isnít any doubt that Williams committed the crimes for which he was sentenced. There is no reason under law for his sentence to be changed.
But what can we really say about the American system of justice when that is the end of it? What do we hope for from our structure of criminal law when a man who has not only changed his own perspective, but worked to keep others from making his mistakes, is inched through the system with no regard to the metamorphosis that has taken place?
Because there is no real question of Williamsís guilt, the only chance to spare his life was if Governor Schwarzenegger had granted him clemency. Schwarzenegger refused to do so. His reasons were essentially that there was no legal reason or doubt that Williams had committed the crimes, elaborated by a long description of how terrible the murders were, and noted that Williams has never given ďthe clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption.Ē Schwarzenegger was referring to the fact that Williams has never actually admitted committing the four murders. And I agree that it would be better if he had.
I just canít believe, however, that this is the proper goal of our justice system. There are two conceptions of what criminal justice is for: punishment and rehabilitation. I donít know that Williams can be rehabilitated in the sense of being released back out into society, and considering the brutality of crimes, perhaps punishment alone justifies him being locked away for the rest of his natural life. But if we harbor any hope that jail is not just about keeping the bad guys away from us, that itís anything but a different form of forty lashes, we have to spare Williams.
This is not a man that has claimed a changed mind and then demanded to be set free. For over ten years now, he has devoted his life to doing whatever he can from behind bars to better society, through reaching out to the community he came from. As perverse a thing this might seem to the families of Williamsís victims, at this moment, the world is a better place for him being in it.
I can say that due to the luxury of not having been affected by his crimes. I can say it because, be it through naivete or idealism, I believe that he has changed. Williams is the best that our system of justice can hope for. Thatís why it seems so perverse to me that the gears are still inexorably turning. We want criminals to see the error of their ways. We want them to become productive members of society, and to help keep others from making their mistakes. We all hope for redemption.
Williams is perhaps the best example I know of that hope. He is a deeply flawed person who has committed unspeakably terrible acts. But he has also achieved some good. I donít believe in an eye for an eye, and I donít believe that fairness demands that he be killed. I think a merciful and just society would demand that he be spared.
Two and half hours. And by the time you read this, heíll be dead.
Originally published on Wednesday December 14, 2005