Facing Execution, Tookie Williams Hopes for Clemency

Crips co-founder Tookie Williams faces execution in California on Dec. 13 unless the governor grants him clemency. Williams, convicted of four murders, has become a noted anti-gang crusader, writer of children's books, and a Nobel Prize nominee while in prison at San Quentin.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California, time is running out for the man who co-founded one of America's most notorious street gangs, the Crips. Stanley "Tookie" Williams is set to die by lethal injection on December 13th. Stanley Williams, who is a convicted murderer, long ago renounced the gang life. He's even been nominated for the Nobel Prize for his many efforts to stop gang violence.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

But the former Crips leader refuses to give authorities inside information about his old gang. He says he has no interest in being a snitch. Williams' impending execution has split California into two camps, one calling for justice, the other for compassion. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

He no longer seems like the menacing character who once terrorized South LA with intense bravado and hulking muscles. These days, Tookie Williams has the demeanor of an aging uncle with wire-rim glasses, a graying beard and a gentle voice. At 51, Williams says he's different inside, too.

Mr. STANLEY "TOOKIE" WILLIAMS: I have changed and I don't want any youth following in my footsteps or anyone of my ilk.

DEL BARCO: This was Tookie Williams a few months ago calling from prison after our face-to-face meeting in a visiting room cage at San Quentin's death row. It's one of his last broadcast interviews. An occasional beep is a reminder that prison officials are monitoring the line. Williams told me how far he's come from his gang days.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I always wanted to have the so-called baddest gang in the world. I always wanted to be the most known, the most notorious thug in the world. And, I mean, that's due to a planet-sized ego.

DEL BARCO: Tookie Williams' gang-bang legend began more than 30 years ago here at the old Rio Theatre on Western Avenue off of Imperial Boulevard in South Central LA. Tookie was just 17. He and his friend Raymond Washington were both products of a tough neighborhood already skilled at taking what they wanted. In the lobby of the old movie theater, they shook hands and agreed to join forces and form a gang. That's how the Crips were born.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We made a mistake. We performed mayhem and aggression throughout the city. We terrorized everybody. We made it a living hell.

DEL BARCO: As Williams recalls on the phone, the influence of the Crips spread quickly and so did his reputation. It all caught up with him in 1979 when he was arrested for robbing and killing a 23-year-old convenience store clerk. Albert Lewis Owens.

Mr. WAYNE OWENS: My brother was lying face down on the floor with his hands behind his back and he pointed a shotgun and blew off the back of his head.

DEL BARCO: From his home in Kansas City, Wayne Owens says there's no doubt Tookie Williams should die for killing his brother.

Mr. OWENS: What he did was monstrous. He just wiped out a life.

DEL BARCO: Police say Williams murdered three other people two weeks later: the owner of a motel, his wife and daughter, all shot point-blank during a holdup. Sheriff's deputy Gene Hetzel, who's now retired, says two men with criminal records pointed the finger at Tookie. Deputy Hetzel also found a shell casing at the motel murder scene matching a shotgun belonging to Williams. Hetzel says that sealed the deal.

Mr. GENE HETZEL (Retired Sheriff's Deputy, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department): I think he's a cold-blooded killer and an outright liar.

DEL BARCO: Williams was convicted by a mostly white jury. For more than two decades, various lawyers have failed to persuade appellate courts that the trial was racially biased. Now with Williams set to die on December 13th, a state-appointed lawyer is making a last-ditch effort trying to unearth new information about the police investigation and the two witnesses who testified against Williams. Attorney Verna Wefald calls it snitch testimony from known felons. She says one of the witnesses is now dead; the other in prison in Canada.

Ms. VERNA WEFALD (Attorney): The prosecution was so intent on convicting Stanley Williams, who at the time, admittedly, was a gang member and had a reputation, that the prosecutors looked the other way in terms of the clear signals that were being sent out by the witnesses that they had that these people were much more involved in these offenses than merely overhearing that Mr. Williams had committed these crimes.

DEL BARCO: But there are no more courts to hear Williams' pleas. His last appeal was turned down earlier this year, and the US Supreme Court refused to take up the case. Now Williams' fate lies with California's governor, who could spare him by granting clemency. Across the state, his supporters have been pleading for compassion.

Mr. MIKE FARRELL (Actor And Anti-Death Penalty Activist): If Governor Schwarzenegger has the courage that I believe he wants to have, then he will commit this man to life without parole and let him continue to do the good work he does even while he remains in prison.

DEL BARCO: Actor and anti-death penalty activist Mike Farrell says Tookie Williams has redeemed himself in prison.

Mr. FARRELL: If you believe in the capacity of a human being to transform her or his life, and I do believe in that, then Stanley is the perfect example of somebody who was a menace and has become an extraordinarily productive, deeply caring, thoughtful human being.

Mr. WILLIAMS: My name is Stanley "Tookie" Williams. I apologize to all of you who most cope every day with dangerous street gangs. I no longer foolishly participate in the so-called gangster lifestyle, and I regret that I ever did.

DEL BARCO: In this public apology recorded at San Quentin, Williams appealed to young people to steer away from violence and gangs. From his death row cell, he's written "Protocols for Peace," he's helped negotiate gang truces, and he's produced public service announcements.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Do you know what it's like to be in a gang?

(Soundbite of siren, gunfire, woman crying)

Unidentified Man: OK, freeze! Police! Now get down on the ground!

Mr. WILLIAMS: Do you know how to get out?

(Soundbite of woman crying)

Mr. WILLIAMS: You don't want to be in a gang. I've turned my life around. You can, too. I'll show you how. There's always a way out.

DEL BARCO: It's the message that Williams has emphasized in a series of children's books he wrote in prison. He also wrote a memoir, which was made into a TV movie. For his anti-gang work, Williams has received multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize, but he refuses to apologize for the four murders that sent him to death row. Williams claims, as he always has, that he's innocent.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Redemption is God's mercy, and the fact is is that, you know, it needs no explanation. It doesn't matter what other people think. It's what I think and what God thinks. That's all that matters to me, and that's all that ever will--and helping children. I don't want to die, but, no, I don't fear death.

DEL BARCO: Now, in what may be the last days of his life, Tookie Williams is being backed by anti-death penalty advocates, ex-gang members, entertainers and clergy, like Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, who spoke out in LA's Lamerck Park.

Mr. TONY MUHAMMAD (Nation of Islam): Stan "Tookie" Williams is a redeemed man. He's a restored man. He's a reformed man. And we ask that the governor, please--we ask him that he should grant clemency. Stan "Tookie" Williams can do more good alive than ever dead.

DEL BARCO: California's police and prosecutors are lined up firmly on the other side, and they're urging the governor not to interfere with Williams' scheduled execution.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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