Defining Redemption for Stanley Tookie Williams
Defining Redemption for Stanley Tookie Williams
The California Supreme Court on Sunday rejected a request to halt the scheduled Tuesday execution of convicted killer and Crips street gang co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now must decide whether or not to grant Williams clemency, which would commute his sentence to life in prison without parole. The movie version of Williams' life is called Redemption — but Williams' definition of the word may differ from that of a minister or ethics professor.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Coming up, more reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq. First, the lead. At one minute past midnight, convicted killer Stanley "Tookie" Williams will be executed at California's San Quentin Prison. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today denied his clemency request. Stanley Williams has never admitted to the crimes for which he will be put to death, but he has expressed remorse over his involvement in gang life. NPR's Mike Pesca reports on the moral issues surrounding this sort of case.
MIKE PESCA reporting:
When it comes to clemency, the California Constitution is purposefully vague. Article 8, Section 5 says, `The governor, on conditions the governor deems proper, may grant a reprieve, pardon and commutation after sentence.' We know now Governor Schwarzenegger didn't.
But the argument for mercy made by and on behalf of Stanley "Tookie" Williams has centered on more specific appeals. In fact, they mostly center on one concept, one word. It is the title of one of his memoirs and the name of the movie about his life, which starred Jamie Foxx, "Redemption." Williams was asked on the radio program "Democracy Now!" about his definition of redemption. Over beeps indicating the call was being monitored by the prison, he explained.
(Soundbite of "Democracy Now!")
Mr. STANLEY "TOOKIE" WILLIAMS (Death Row Inmate): My interpretation of redemption is different from the theological or the academical rendition. I believe that my redemption symbolizes the end of a bad beginning and a new start. It goes beyond in the sense of being liberated from one's sins or atonement in itself. I feel that my redemption mostly, or primarily, encompasses the ability to reach out to others.
PESCA: While Williams spoke of going beyond atonement, the Los Angeles district attorney argues that he has not transcended anything because he has not even owned up to his crimes. Quoting from the DA's response to the clemency petition: "Stanley Williams has steadfastly refused to take any responsibility for the brutal, destructive and murderous acts he committed. Without such responsibility, there can be no redemption." Williams' lawyer Jonathan Harris was asked about this in a conference call with reporters last week: How can his client be said to be redeemed if he will not show remorse?
Mr. JONATHAN HARRIS (Attorney for Stanley Williams): Stanley has owned up publicly repeatedly and sincerely for what he has done. He has written apologies to children's--gang violence victims. He has apologized for his role in forming the Crips. So Stanley is deeply remorseful for his past. He has apologized for it repeatedly.
PESCA: Parse the answer and you realize that Williams is claiming remorse for crimes he was not charged with. But with the murders he was convicted of, his attitude is that he can't apologize because he didn't commit them. Of course, if this moral reasoning is to fly, you have to believe he really didn't commit the crimes. But if he didn't commit the crimes then, of course, he shouldn't be executed for them.
The jury convicted Williams of four murders, though, and no court on the state or federal level has argued with that proposition. Even though some federal judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals took the highly unusual step of recommending clemency, they were not persuaded by the arguments over Williams' innocence or the fairness of his trial. Again, the question: Can a man be redeemed if he will not admit to his crime? He can, says Jeffrey Abramson, a former prosecutor and now professor of law and politics at Brandeis University.
Professor JEFFREY ABRAMSON (Brandeis University): If we were to make it clear to prisoners that the get-out-of-death-row, the get-out-of-jail-early card was show remorse, what we would do was produce false expressions of sincerity, cosmetic remorse, maybe even, you know, confessions that one ought not to make.
PESCA: Abramson says the last-minute deathbed-type apology appeals to our sense of narrative, but shouldn't be a prerequisite for clemency.
Joe Ingber was the lawyer who represented Williams during the murder trial in 1981. Ingber's represented over 20 clients who faced the death penalty, and says Stanley "Tookie" Williams is the best argument for clemency he's seen, apology or not.
Mr. JOE INGBER (Attorney): I've stood next to many, many defendants who were educated by their in-jail colleagues to tell probation officers and to tell judges that `Gee, I'm sorry I did it, Judge, because I don't want you to give me 20 years. I want you to give me 10 years, even though I went through a big fight with the jury and the jury found me guilty after I fought it every bit of the way.' You know what? That's phony.
PESCA: Ingber says he doesn't dress defendants up in suits because juries can sense their discomfort. He views a display of remorse after a lifetime of claiming innocence as similarly contrived.
Sparing Williams is a simple call for a man like Gerald Cavett. Today, Cavett, like Williams, is trying to keep kids out of gangs. But when they were both teen-agers in the early '70s, they were members of the Crips. Both went to jail for killings. Cavett says he's innocent of his manslaughter charge. Since his release, he's been a successful youth counselor who has the endorsement of politicians and school officials. He's there in schools, on street corners and in a run-down office in the part of Los Angeles they used to call South Central before some local politicians began a rebranding effort. Cavett's argument, indeed his life's work, boil down to something simple.
Mr. GERALD CAVETT (Youth Counselor): Saving children's lives. That's what the world is about, saving our children, making us a tomorrow. Is it more important to execute him, or more important to save our kids?
PESCA: Williams' impact is in part undeniable, and in part overly hyped by his defenders. For instance, a letter on savetookie.com talks about a gang truce in Newark, New Jersey, that drew some inspiration from Williams' prison writing. The letter claims since that time there have been no gang murders in Newark. Untrue, but a Newark police officer who works with gangs says the truce has been helpful and that the signatories do credit Williams in part.
To a large extent, Williams' credibility stems from his notoriety, not as a murderer but as a gang leader. Even though he was an early member of the Crips--`co-founder' is how he puts it--you'd be hard-pressed to find a gang expert who says that "Tookie" Williams was a name on the lips of every young Crip from the 1970s through today. He was mostly forgotten before he began getting publicity for writing children's books in the mid-'90s.
Through these books, Williams has had a positive impact, acknowledges Dan Jenkins, a former jail and prison minister. But Jenkins says that good work is not enough to call a man redeemed. Jenkins, the director of church and pastoral ministries for IFCA, a biblical fellowship, says that by denying his crimes, Williams has not atoned.
Mr. DAN JENKINS (Director of Church and Pastoral Ministries, IFCA): Redemption comes through being truthful and honest. And to the degree that you're not truthful and honest is to the degree that you impede the ability to be truly redeemed. Truthfulness is the issue.
PESCA: Stanley "Tookie" Williams continues to deny the crimes. It looks like he'll be taking that denial to his grave. The open question is: Will that denial be part of taking him there? Mike Pesca, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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