Be prepared to answer a question, but first here are the facts:
Stanley Williams, a.k.a. “Tookie,” murdered the employee of a 7-11 store in Los Angeles. He and his friends then took $120 from the cash register. A few weeks later Williams shot and killed the owner of a motel, his wife and their daughter. He took $50 from the cash drawer. Williams was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for these crimes. What followed were a series of appeals and writ proceedings in state and federal courts. The myriad issues raised in his latest federal habeas writ petition are discussed at length in the 9th Circuit’s 60-page opinion affirming the district courts’ denial of his habeas corpus petition. You can read all about it in Williams. v. Woodford (9th Cir.2002) 306 F 3d 665. Williams sits on death row waiting execution for his crimes. He is the co-founder of the Crips, the infamous gang whose name is synonymous with brutality and violence.
Now the question: What do Tookie Williams and Mother Teresa have in common? Answer: Both were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, only Mother Teresa won it. But Williams was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Can’t say that about Mother Teresa.
On a recent Sunday evening, the cable channel FX aired a movie, “Redemption,” starring Jamie Foxx in a stunning portrayal of Williams and his journey from ruthless killer to reflective writer and peacemaker. Such a metamorphosis sounds like the hackneyed idea of a mediocre screenwriter, only it is the truth. At first, San Quentin did not make a change in William’s life; he fomented gang wars and spread terror within the prison walls much as he did on the streets of Los Angeles. After he had spent six years in solitary, another prisoner heading for execution left Williams his dictionary.
The dictionary was William’s Rosetta Stone. From it he learned to put words together to express ideas, and he soon began to understand that words carry greater power than a gun, the power to do good and to change lives. With the help of journalist Barbara Becnel, who interviewed Williams for a book she was writing on street gangs, Williams wrote a series of children’s books carrying a common anti-gang theme. He also wrote his own memoir, “Blue Rage, Black Redemption,” which chronicles his journey from the streets of South Central L.A. to prison and “redemption.” His “Tookie Protocols for Peace,” which ironically carries his gang moniker, have been successful in initiating peace between warring gangs. Williams methodically set out to achieve this goal “block by block” so that neighborhoods and cities have become safer. He also has reduced violence within the prison.
His Web site, “Internet Project for Street Peace,” allows kids at risk from different parts of the world to achieve literacy and to talk to one another to find alternatives to violence. He has become an international sensation with two Nobel nominations to his name.
The film portrays Williams as a menacing young man filled with rage and hate, now transformed into a reflective man of letters, promoting peace and working from his cell to save lives. The main off-screen character, Death, was William’s servant and now it may be his master if further petitions seeking review before the U.S. Supreme Court are denied. One wishes Williams had had his dictionary long before the senseless killings that led to his conviction.
Some may see the film’s focus on Williams’ redemption as a dramatic argument against the death penalty. But whatever one thinks about capital punishment, the film highlights how problematic it is and the questions it raises. Williams claims his innocence, but he was convicted of the crimes for which he received a death sentence. His trial counsel Joe Ingber is a seasoned criminal defense attorney, well-known for his extraordinary skill and competence. Both the California Supreme Court in People v. Williams (1998) 44 Cal.3d 1127 and the 9th Circuit (supra) found him to have rendered competent counsel to Williams. Ingber, also known for his wit, is reputed to have mumbled under his breath after the trial judge sentenced Williams to death for each of the four murders, “will that be consecutive or concurrent?” But for the sake of discussion let us assume Williams is in fact guilty of the offenses for which he has been convicted and accept as we must, that the death penalty is the law in California.
Does the clamor in some quarters for commutation of Williams’ sentence reflect our fascination with celebrity? You may recall the case of Jack Abbot, the convicted killer whose prison book, “Belly of the Beast,” gave him credentials as a upcoming important American writer. His correspondence with Norman Mailer ultimately led the Utah Parole Board to release Abbott on conditional parole in the employ of Mailer.
Abbott appeared on the Today show, received a contract from Random House and was written up in leading magazines. After only a few weeks out of prison he stabbed to death a waiter in a restaurant over a dispute about use of the restroom. At his trial the prosecutor read what Abbott had written about the incident: “You have sunk the knife to its hilt into the middle of his chest. Slowly he begins to struggle for his life. You can feel his life trembling through the knife.” The prosecutor asked Abbot if he had written that. Abbot replied, “It’s good, isn’t it?”
But a comparison between Williams and Abbott is neither apt nor fair. Williams’ books are for him acts of atonement, or redemption. His work has brought real good into the world and may be credited with saving lives. The earnings for Williams’ work goes to helping youth at risk, not to enriching Williams. And his supporters are apparently seeking to avoid the death penalty, not to gain his immediate release from prison. But is he deserving of special treatment because of his talent? If he lives, he arguably saves lives. But what of the death row inmates who have changed and also seek redemption yet lack Williams’ talent? Are they not entitled to a commuted sentence if he is?
And what of the victims and their families and friends who seek closure? Not surprisingly, the mother of the 7-11 employee who Williams killed more than 25 years ago, wants the ultimate sentence imposed. Prosecutors who worked on the case said that Williams should die for what he did. Writing a few children’s books doesn’t erase that he is a murderer. But that raises the question of whether he is still a murderer.
DNA evidence has firmly established that a large number of people have been sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. If a person has so changed that he or she is not the same person who originally committed a crime in the past, is that like a change in one’s “psychological DNA”? Is it fanciful to conclude that the person we execute today is not the same person who committed horrendous crimes more than 25 years ago?
Williams says, “In order for me to experience redemption, I had to first develop a conscience...That enabled me to gradually rectify my many faults…only then was I able to reach out to others and make amends.” Psychologists tell us that conscience is learned. But if Williams is a different individual than the one who mindlessly killed his defenseless victims many years ago, should that matter? The prosecutor argues that Williams committed the murders and he should receive the punishment the law allows for those crimes. [ So does Sue Blake, public policy director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. In a Daily Journal article April 21, 2004, she posits that a movie "glamorizing" Williams, "trivializes the deaths of his victims," and gives " a cold blooded murderer" who gets caught, a break. In the same issue William wrote an indignant article laying the blame for his residency on death row to racism, and his trial and appellate lawyers. This is not the repentant Williams portrayed in the film. And as Blake points out, this calls into question Williams' professed redemption. If Blake is innocent , he does not need redemption. Citing the overwhelming evidence of William's guilt Blake argues that ["J]ustice demands that crimes be punished, not reduced in proportion to the perpetrator's rehabilitation level."] And this in turn poses the question whether rehabilitation is relevant here. Is it a concept that we no longer credit? Remarkably the 9th circuit said, in the closing paragraph of its opinion, “Although Williams’ good works and accomplishments since incarceration may make him a worthy candidate for the exercise of gubernatorial discretion, they are not matters that we in the federal judiciary are at liberty to take into consideration in our review of Williams’ habeas corpus petition.” Williams v. Woodford supra at 725.
Whatever your thoughts about Williams and the death penalty, you should see his website, Tookie’s Corner. Williams’ story makes us confront the question whether redemption equals rehabilitation. And if it does, should that be a factor in the continuous and contentious debate about the death penalty?
Arthur Gilbert is the Presiding Justice of Division Six of the Court of Appeal, Ventura.