activists and politicians take on the death penalty in a battle to save reformed
L.A. street-gang icon Stanley “Tookie” Williams
Emerging from the
courtroom of L.A. Superior Court Judge William Pounders, who had just set Dec.
13 for the execution of convicted murderer, former gang member and Nobel Peace
Prize nominee Stanley “Tookie” Williams, actor Mike Farrell could barely contain
Dejected, frustrated and somewhat angry, the
veteran television star and longtime anti-death penalty activist appeared to be
on the verge of tears while making his way along the ninth floor hallway
following the hearing inside the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center
on West Temple Street in downtown Los Angeles.
“The judge essentially pulled a Pontius Pilate
and stuck his thumb out, down. It’s a very antiseptic process,” Farrell said
haltingly as he made his way to the elevators along with lawyers and other
supporters of Williams who also were in court for the Oct. 24 hearing.
“One of the rabbis said, ‘A life can be
dismissed in so casual and so ministerial a way.’ It’s just pathetic,” said
Farrell, board president of the activist group Death Penalty Focus.
He and other anti-death penalty activists, many
of whom gathered outside the courtroom following the hearing, find Williams’
case begging for clemency.
Among the nearly 650 condemned inmates in
California, the 51-year-old Williams stands out as having turned his life
around, and was even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his writing and
activism from behind bars.
Though he admits helping form the deadly Crips
street gang at 16, Williams maintains his innocence of involvement in four
gruesome 1979 robbery-murders.
In 1981, he was sentenced to die for the
execution-style murder of a Whittier convenience store clerk, Albert Owens, and
a particularly horrific triple murder of two L.A. motel owners and their
daughter with a shotgun.
In April 1997, after receiving 12 disciplinary
violations in prison, Williams wrote a letter from his cell to apologize for
helping start the Crips.
“I also didn’t expect the Crips to end up
ruining the lives of so many young people, especially black young men who have
hurt other black young men,” he wrote. “I vow to spend the rest of my life
working toward solutions.”
A year before that apology, Williams began
publishing a series of children’s books decrying gangs and has spoken to at-risk
and incarcerated children from his cell. Last year, his Tookie Protocol for
Peace was credited with forging a truce between rival gangs in New Jersey
following the premiere of Redemption, a television drama about his life starring
actor Jamie Foxx.
Since his change of heart, “Stan has saved
lives. To save Tookie Williams’ life for the future will save the lives of other
people who have strayed into gang violence,” said Stephen Rohde, a past
president of the Southern California ACLU and member of the legal team seeking
clemency for Williams.
Misdeeds and injustices
As activists and attorneys struggle to save
Williams, Los Angeles Democratic state Assemblyman Paul Koretz is joining that
fight and has already written a bill calling for a temporary moratorium on
“More good is done by keeping him alive,” said
Koretz of Williams. “Certainly we’ll do whatever we can to encourage the
governor to prevent this execution from taking place.”
Koretz’s bill would stop all executions through
at least 2007, pending the outcome of a study of use of the death penalty by the
state Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
The product of a 2004 Senate resolution led by
then-state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, the commission is expected to
recommend significant reforms in the application of capital punishment. Its
membership includes L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, Attorney General Bill Lockyer,
L.A. Human Relations Commissioner Rabbi Allen Freehling, L.A. County Public
Defender Michael Judge and nine others.
These efforts can’t help Williams, however.
Koretz’s bill won’t be voted on until next year, leaving a good possibility
Williams will be executed before the state could halt executions while it
investigates the fairness of the death penalty.
For those close to the Williams case, to execute
a man dedicated to ending urban youth violence would undermine the purpose and
intent of the state’s criminal justice system and be a shameful act in the eyes
of the world.
“If America gets sanctioned for its misdeeds and
injustices, I would not be surprised,” said Leanette Hill, who along with
Farrell and some of the condemned man’s friends braved morning showers to attend
the hearing and a press conference on the steps of the courthouse, sponsored by
the ecumenical group California People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.
Farrell, Hill and dozens of others were joined
by top area clergy members of all faiths, among them Rabbi Leonard Beerman; the
Rev. James Lawson, a onetime confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. and pastor
emeritus at L.A.’s Holman United Methodist Church; and the Rev. Paul Sawyer, a
longtime death penalty opponent, of the Throop Memorial Unitarian Universalist
Church in Pasadena.
“I would not be surprised if the whole world
turned against America and started sanctioning her for her perversion of
justices,” said Hill.
Hill said she was also disgusted by Pounders’
refusal to extend the execution date to Dec. 22.
“The judge could have extended it eight more
days, and wouldn’t do it. It’s really a reprehensible perversion of justice that
we have seen in his case. A lot of the evidence that could have come out that
would acquit him hasn’t even been examined,” said Hill, pointing out Williams is
certainly not alone as a poor black man unable to afford adequate legal
But, she said, “That’s what’s happening with
Tookie. … Everyone knows that our justice system is a perverted one … even
though [America] claims to have a Constitution, [the criminal justice system] is
more political than anything.”
Running out of time
Awaiting execution for more than two decades,
Williams’ only hope to survive the year now rests with a clemency petition to
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On Oct. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected
appeals on his case based on alleged racism used in court arguments against him.
He was convicted in 1979 by an all-white jury, and has had numerous appeals
Outside the courthouse, attorney Peter Fleming,
who represented Williams at the Oct. 24 hearing, said he is presently preparing
a plea for clemency for Schwarzenegger to consider. Fleming said that the
petition will be sent to the governor on Nov. 8, the same day as the special
election called by Schwarzenegger for four of eight measures to appear on the
“Stanley Williams is not about the death
penalty. Stanley Williams’ case is about a man who has done what is the most
important thing a man can do in this country, and that is reach out to the youth
of this country with books, with tapes … to have young people understand that no
matter how difficult things might be, there is always opportunity,” Fleming said
to the crowd.
“Williams fills every requirement for clemency.
If the governor is going to take seriously his authority over life and death,
then Williams qualifies to be saved,” said Rohde.
Political winds blowing as they are, though,
it’s unknown whether Schwarzenegger, whose office had no comment for this story,
will consider keeping Williams alive.
Since becoming governor, Schwarzenegger has
rejected clemency requests from two Death Row inmates scheduled for execution.
Donald Beardslee, convicted of killing two women
in drug-related murders, was executed by lethal injection in January.
Another convicted murderer, Kevin Cooper won a
last-minute reprieve from the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based on calls to
test physical evidence his attorneys believe was mishandled by investigators.
While San Diego U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff upheld Cooper’s sentence for
killing a San Bernardino County family with an ax, a Court of Appeals panel
again agreed to review his case, possibly as soon as next month.
After the press conference, Fleming said he has
received thousands of e-mails from youngsters whom Williams has reached and has
perhaps even saved through his work. Fleming reiterated his belief that the case
of Williams “is about one man.”
“Like I said, kids are an important part of this
country, and no one has done what he has done to reach these kids,” Fleming
Barbara Becnel, who interviewed Williams for a
1993 Essence magazine article on urban violence and later co-wrote his series of
children’s books, said she believes Williams has touched the lives of an
incalculable number of children.
“The person I’ve known for almost 13 years is a
very intelligent, honorable person. The work he is doing is really selfless.
He’s in a dangerous place to come out against gangs,” said Becnel. “It would be
an absolute travesty for the state to execute Williams.”
Rev. Lawson called the state’s decision to
execute Williams tantamount to first-degree murder.
“It is very important that all of us recognize,
as human beings, we do have a responsibility to be accountable to the creator of
all of us,” Lawson, 77, said before launching into harsh criticisms of Pounders
and his ruling.
Before finishing, he called on conservative
Christian leaders to join in the fight to end capital punishment and lend their
voices to saving Williams, which they have not done.
The ruling by Pounders, Lawson said, “was done
without any kind of sensibility of what it is to be human and to be alive. It
was done with the spirit of tyranny. There was no sense of tragedy of human
beings calling for the death of other human beings; no sense that killing
another human being is in contradiction to our own historical document, the one
especially that says we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people
are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator, with these being the
pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The demon of error
Koretz’s moratorium bill, Assembly Bill 1120,
formed out of his own questions about the fairness of the American justice
system. According to the state Senate’s charge to the state Commission on the
Fair Administration of Justice, more than 100 Americans sentenced to die have
“I’ve always had mixed feelings about the death
penalty,” said Koretz. “The thing that really made me queasy was that, every
once in a while, someone is found to be innocent after they have been convicted
Such was almost the case with Darby Tillis in
Illinois, convicted and sentenced to die for murders he did not commit until he
was granted a pardon by former Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan.
Ryan made headlines in 2003 when he issued a
blanket commutation of the sentences of all 167 of the state’s Death Row
inmates, decrying that state’s justice system as “haunted by the demon of error”
and plagued by class and race injustice.
“God used Gov. Ryan to wipe the bloodstains off
the halls of Death Row. I have all the respect in the world for that man,” said
Tillis, who was convicted of murder in 1979 and is now 62.
Tillis is part of Voices from Death Row, an
anti-death penalty speaking tour that has traveled the country.
“Death Row is horrible. It smells like death. It
feels like death. It is death,” he said. “The death penalty itself is hate and
revenge, and the people are bloodthirsty.”
And it was because of what Ryan did, said Koretz,
that he wrote his bill to stay state executions.
“I thought what Gov. Ryan did was absolutely
brilliant,” said Koretz. “If a fairly conservative governor could take such a
courageous step, I thought a more moderate governor in California can do the
same [by signing the bill].”
System of terror
Back at the press conference, Lawson reminded
his listeners that “[Schwarzenegger] has the power of life and death. The
Scriptures tell us when you have the power of life and death, you must choose
life. The Old Testament is still true: Thou shall not kill. And we in the United
States have become lovers of killing, whether in Iraq or on the streets of Los
Angeles. It’s time now for many good, blessed people of this community, of this
state, to rise up and say our time under God is now, and we reject every call to
kill. … Killing Stanley Williams is first-degree murder. It is intentional
John “Big J” Watson, who attended the press
conference and the hearing, said he spent time in prison with Williams, who told
him he was high on drugs at the time of his arrest. Watkins is convinced
Williams was railroaded by authorities.
“The trial was unfair from the beginning,” said
Watson. “He doesn’t know what happened.”
Zane Smith, one of the founders of the Compton
Crips and the man who first recruited Williams into the gang, said the case “is
so unfair because I know personally he was on PCP” at the time of his arrest.
Rev. Sawyer said Williams is important, but no
more important than other people scheduled to die by lethal injection at the
hands of the state as part of what he called a “monstrous system.”
The death penalty, Sawyer said, “is the hammer
blow to enforce a repressive system. If you can threaten people with death,
holding that over somebody’s head in the system, makes everyone afraid. So it’s
terror. It’s terrorism.”
The Rev. Ignacio Castuera of St. John’s United
Methodist Church in L.A. said Williams’ case “is particularly poignant because
it is a perfect demonstration of how the system is not working for a great
majority of the people. Bad education, to begin with, incarceration, execution,
that’s typical of the lives of so many of our people, young men, especially some
of the brilliant ones, and [Williams] has shown he is a brilliant man, and quite
“I think we need to reconstitute the fact that
human beings are redeemable. We need to really be thinking about the whole
system and how it needs to be reshaped,” Castuera said.
Patty Carmody, a volunteer with the Catholic
Church who was joined at the rally by Megan Fincher, said killing Williams would
hurt the children he’s reached more than anyone.
“If we were to kill him, that would be telling
kids that what he said doesn’t really count,” Carmody said.
It’s all on Arnie
During his time at the microphone, Farrell
repeated his call for a moratorium on capital punishment and promised to broach
the subject when he next meets personally with Schwarzenegger.
“What we need to do is take a look at our
system, and while we do that we need to stop executing anybody, much less going
forward with executing Stanley Williams,” Farrell said.
When he speaks with Schwarzenegger, Farrell said
he will ask the governor “to be a leader, to be a man, to be a human being, to
stop this execution and call for a moratorium on all executions while we examine
our system and find out what is wrong and fix what is wrong.”
In the meantime, “I think it’s a horrible
possibility that this execution will be done in the name of the people of
California — it’s the People v. Williams,” said Rohde. “Decent people are
repulsed by the deliberate, calculated taking of lives. Killing to prove that
killing is wrong is, in itself, wrong.”
One soldier’s story continued…
|“Mister, mister, do
you have football?” (Photos courtesy Patrick Campbell)
two minutes. Just punctuation to our
The most constant
reminders that “I am not in Kansas anymore” are the helicopters that are
constantly buzzing us overhead. They fly by constantly day in and day out, and
they are no higher then a couple hundred feet off the ground. Makes me feel like
I am in an old Vietnam movie.
Baghdad! Being on patrol, in terms of intensity, would put Big Game week and the
week before an election to shame. I just got off two patrols, one lasting 24
hours followed by a 17 hour patrol, and I feel like I have been run over by a
My second day outside
of the wire, I found myself in the belly of tank. We just cleared the gate to
the base when I needed to close the loader’s hatch. I dropped down into the tank
and dropped the heavy hatch to let it slam closed. The handle hit me square on
the head and I bit down hard on my lip. Thankfully I was wearing my helmet and
was only a little bit stunned. However, I quickly realized that I had sliced the
inside of my lip. They kept asking me if we needed to go back. Part pride and
part shock led me to say, “Charlie Mike” (CM = Continue Mission).
I knew I needed
stitches, but it wasn’t till I asked the gunner to look at it that I learned I
had bitten all the way through my lip. I found myself pulling security as a car
rapidly approached our position. I was told not to let anyone close to our
vehicles, and I had to point my weapon and scream loudly at the vehicle.
Thankfully, the vehicle ground to a quick halt, because every time I yelled I
was spitting out the hole beneath my lip. I had six stitches.
Our next night out,
we were traveling in Humvees. I happened to be in the lead vehicle. It was dark
when we left the base, and we were running blackout (no lights). The crazy thing
is that, using our night vision goggles (NVGs), we could operate in almost
complete darkness and drive like it was daytime. My driver was having some
serious trouble staying on the road. It was becoming a serious problem when, at
one point, we drove off the road and into a ditch.
The driver admitted
that he could not see well enough to drive, and the TC then said, “Campbell, up
in front!” I was shocked, and I crept up into the driver’s seat. I had always
wanted to drive a Humvee, but I never had the chance, until now. I told the TC,
“I am not licensed, nor have I driven one of these before.” He replied, “Now is
as good of a time as any to learn.” I led my patrol safely home to our base. I
felt like I had redeemed myself to my unit (after the lip incident).
I met our translator:
my first Iraqi friend. He is about our age, and we talked about American women.
It is funny, how I can travel thousands of miles from home and immediately find
myself talking about relationship issues. We talked for almost two hours, until
the mortars starting falling near us and we had to vacate the area. We talked a
lot about the challenge of getting the Iraqi people to trust anyone after the
reign of Saddam. Many cannot find it in their hearts to trust anyone anymore.
Our interpreter is performing a vital and dangerous role and has to hide his
identity for fear of retribution. We met one family who would not tell us where
the IEDs were planted because his brother (an Iraqi police officer in Fallujah)
had been executed the day before. So much for the brighter note. I was really
happy to make a new friend.
We raided a house
from which one of our patrols had received small arms fire. We came guns blazing
and stormed up to the house. As we got to the back of the house, we found the
whole family. There was the mother and father, about eight kids and two
roosters. The family was really scared of us.
father spoke English, enough to answer all our questions. As a squad searched
the house, I sat outside with the family, pulling security. The kids were so
inquisitive. First, they asked my name. I was proud to practice what little
Arabic I knew … I said, “Assmi Patrick.” They kept talking to us in almost
perfect English and they had me rolling with laughter. Needless to say, I wasn’t
pulling very good security, but I had such a wonderful interaction with these
kids. I don’t know about you, but if someone came running up on my house with
guns blazing, I don’t think I would be nearly as hospitable.
I don’t even know
where to begin. Tomorrow we are having a ceremony for our first fallen soldier
in our battalion. It is a sad day, and I have no idea what tomorrow is going to
be like. Unfortunately, I doubt this will be our only ceremony of this type. I
do not know his name, but I still feel like I have lost a friend …
I had my first
interaction with the hordes of local kids: “Mister, Mister, do you have
football?” These kids beg for footballs (soccer balls), food (MREs), pens, paper
and anything else they can get their hands on …
I guess I am just
avoiding talking about the important firsts. I earned my Combat Medical Badge.
The criteria for earning this award is rather simple, to be a medic on a mission
with infantry soldiers and receive enemy contact.
At the end of a
rather long patrol, we were rolling home when I saw a huge cloud of dust kick up
in front of me. A burning round shot across the road, thankfully missing its
mark. We had been hit by an IED (improvised explosive device). We needed to find
the triggerman and I immediately jumped out of the Humvee and single-handedly
stopped and searched the closest vehicle. My adrenaline was pumping and I was
screaming at the driver in a way I didn’t know that I was capable of. It was not
the hate-filled, rage voice that I feared I might be consumed by during my first
contact with the enemy.
We stopped some
people we suspected of being the triggermen and searched their house. Unlike the
previous raid, I was in the raiding party and we found two AK-47s. They are
allowed to have one AK-47 per family, so this was not a surprise.
My first medical
patient was a couple of days ago. Again we were at the tail end of a long patrol
when we were hit by an IED. This was much closer than my first IED, and it
struck the Humvee in front of me. Once the dust cleared and we were sure it
wasn’t going to be followed by an ambush or second IED, I looked up to see the
Humvee in front of me billowing smoke.
Again we were looking
for the triggerman when I got “the call.” I grabbed my aide bag (about 50 lbs.
of medical supplies) and ran to the soldier. Thankfully, there were no shrapnel
wounds, just a possible fracture of the arm from the concussion of the IED.
Oddly enough, earlier in the day I had been reviewing in my head how I would
treat this exact injury …
My last story is a
little different from the rest. We were patrolling one night (0100), when we
noticed some peculiar/suspicious activity. We decided to investigate and came
upon a house. We ordered everyone out while we searched it. After being nice but
firm with the family, coupled with giving them a little care package after we
knew they were safe, we went from house raiders to guests. They insisted that we
come in and share tea with them. It was sooo odd sitting in their living room in
my body armor and helmet, with my M-16, sipping a small cup of chai and watching
Arabic television. We happened to have a woman with us on this particular patrol
(the only time ever), and all the women gathered in the back room while the men
sat in the living room. She gave a little one a glow stick (aka chem light), and
soon we had every little kid in the neighborhood coming to meet us. The parents
woke them up for their chance to meet a U.S. soldier. We left that house knowing
that not everyone was our enemy and that there is hope for this country. The
hope is in the hospitality of that family and the hearts and minds of those