Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Life (in prison) or Death? Why I Support the Death Penalty

Albert Owens, one of Tookie Williams' victims, shot in the back with a twelve gauge shotgun as he lay on the floor of the convenience store that Williams robbed

Yet another convicted murderer is trying to obtain clemency on the grounds that he has changed himself, and therefore redeemed himself.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, one of the co-founders of the notorious "Crips" street gang, has lost his final appeal and is scheduled to be executed on December 13 for the murders of four people during a series of armed robberies. There is no doubt of his guilt: one witness (Williams' brother!) remarked that Williams smoked PCP before one of the robberies and laughed at one of his dying victims who lay groaning in his own blood.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of the Crips street gang. Williams had a reputation as a fearless, and fearsome, fighter. I can believe it.

Contrary to the assertions of Williams' defenders, a jury comprised of blacks and whites convicted Williams even though the prosecutor was disallowed the use of Williams' history as a street gang leader. We are about as sure as we can be of William's guilt in the murders he was convicted of; we can be certain that Williams, in his role as the co-founder of perhaps the most infamous street gang in America, was involved in many more murders. We know that Williams threatened to "get each and every one of you motherfuckers [on the jury]" when he was convicted. We know that Williams got off on the thrill of killing from his conversations with prison counselors. We know that Williams planned to kill prison guards during his abortive escape attempt after his incarceration. And we have strong evidence that meets the 'probable cause' standard that Williams continued to play a leadership role in the Crips gang after his conviction and imprisonment including ordering 'hits' on individuals and managing factions of Crips prison gangs. In short, Stanley "Tookie" Williams is a reprehensible human being who has no respect for the rights of others or the rule of law and who poses a direct threat to others both in and out of prison despite his incarceration.

Others disagree. They want Williams to have a new trial, despite exhaustive appeals that have determined Williams' original trial and conviction was without procedural error, he was judged by a jury of his peers that included blacks, and that Williams' defense team was highly qualified. Williams' conviction was not due to some miscarriage of justice, but because he was guilty and numerous witnesses including family members, friends, and bystanders, testified to his guilt. These facts don't matter to Williams' defenders. Their strategy is two-fold: insist against all evidence that Williams didn't get a fair trial, and urge clemency based upon Williams' purported rehabilitation. Williams supposedly came to a realization that he was an evil dude and decided that the path to redemption was to write several books about his life, as well as some aimed at children, all preaching that gang life and criminal activity are signs of self-hatred. These efforts have drawn attention to Williams, to the extent that he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by a Swiss legislator (who opposes the death penalty).(After preliminary research into how people are nominated for the 'prestigious' Nobel Prize, I am a lot less impressed with this award than I used to be... something I should have realized when folks like Jimmy Carter, Adolf Hitler, and Yassir Arafat are among the winners.)

I can agree with Williams' message as portrayed in his books, but that is besides the point. If everyone who claimed to be rehabilitated while serving time was let off the prisons would be empty. More to the point: prison sentences aren't dependent upon the redemption, whether actual or fraudulent, of the person being sentenced. Williams did the crime, reasonably should have known that the punishment for murder could include the death penalty, and thus them there's the breaks, Cuz.

In California, there effectively is no life sentence without possibility of parole. If Williams' sentence was commuted, he would be eligible for parole eventually. The choice here is between ensuring such a person is never going to be able to prey on society, or trusting his allegations that he is a changed man and eventually offering him a second chance. Hasn't his history shown that Williams cannot be trusted?

There was a case a decade or so in California, where a convicted rapist who was out on parole kidnapped a young woman, raped her repeatedly, then cut off both her hands with an axe and left her to bleed to death in a roadside ditch. She survived to testify against her attacker, and he was convicted of attempted murder... only to be freed a few years later. The criminal made the mistake of committing his next rape/murder in Florida, and we all know what happens to those convicted of capital murder in Florida; he was executed. As Ted Bundy so aptly illustrated, a convicted murderer who is put to death will never threaten the public again.

Putting someone to death is unpleasant, but sometimes it's necessary. I'll grant the possibility that Williams may have changed. He may finally have realized the error of his ways; staring death in the face is a powerful force for change. Unfortunately for him, it's about twenty years too late. We cannot afford to risk innocent lives if we're wrong and Williams hasn't changed. Williams crossed a line that can't be recrossed. Impose the sentence.

Note: more information on Williams, both pro and con.

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