Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.
News Maryland

Death penalty debate focuses on redemption

His case had become a cause celebre. To his supporters, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the gang founder who spent his years on death row warning people away from the violent culture he helped to create, was living proof that a condemned killer could be rehabilitated.

But whether he truly had found redemption - and many doubted his sincerity - prosecutors, victims' advocates and death penalty supporters said he still had to pay for the murders of four people in 1979.

The 51-year-old Williams, who acknowledged wrongdoing as a co-founder and leader of the Crips gang in Los Angeles but said he was innocent of the killings for which he was condemned, was executed early this morning at San Quentin State Prison after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined yesterday to commute his sentence.

"After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency," Schwarzenegger said. "The facts do not justify overturning the jury's verdict or the decisions of the courts in this case."

Williams' case has revived the national debate over what the state should do with death-row convicts who have turned their lives around to become contributing members of society while awaiting execution.

"The fear people have is that if you put a person back on the streets, they're going to do the same kinds of things again," said Bishop H. Gerard Knoche, head of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "You could at least commute his sentence so his ministry could continue. Who knows what additionally this man can do, how much further he can develop, even from prison?"

Michael Paranzino, president of Kensington-based Throw Away the Key, said granting clemency based on death-row conversions "gives further incentive for these killers to game the system.

"That's why we have 25 years of frivolous appeals in the Tookie Williams case," Paranzino said. "Once you establish that you can commit any sort of heinous crime you want, as long as you turn yourself around with the inevitable period between conviction and execution, that sends all the wrong signals to would-be killers and to killers, which is: After we catch you, then quickly find God, get a marketing or PR director and start writing books and preaching to kids or whatever the next gimmick is going to be."

Williams was convicted in 1981 of gunning down Albert Owens, 26, a 7-Eleven clerk, during a holdup in Whittier, Calif., and of shooting to death Yen-I Yang, 76, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 63, and their daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, 43, at their Los Angeles motel a few weeks later.

On death row, Williams repudiated gang violence, wrote anti-gang books and gave anti-gang talks to churches and community groups by telephone.

"If Stanley Williams does not merit clemency," his attorney Peter Fleming Jr. asked, "what meaning does clemency retain in this state?"

Schwarzenegger was not persuaded.

"Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?" he asked. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption."

Schwarzenegger's decision drew immediate criticism from Williams' supporters.

"Too often, I hear the governor and many who are around him talk about his values system," NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon said. "In this particular case, those values seem to be cast aside. There is absolutely no recognition given to redemption."

Williams had reminded some of Karla Faye Tucker, the Texas woman who was convicted of hacking a man to death with a three-foot pickaxe, and then became a born-again Christian while on death row. She became the subject of a clemency campaign supported by leaders as diverse as Pope John Paul II and televangelist Pat Robertson but was executed in 1998 after the Texas Supreme Court rejected her efforts to challenge the state's clemency process. George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, was limited by state law to granting a 30-day stay of execution. He declined to intervene.

Death penalty opponents yesterday criticized a system that they said did not allow for the possibility that people can change.

"I would not be a Christian if I didn't believe in redemption," Knoche said. "Change is real. That's very fundamental to Jesus' teaching."

Knoche joined with other Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders last week in calling on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to commute the death sentence of Wesley Eugene Baker to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Ehrlich declined; Baker was executed.

Prosecutors and victims' advocates argued that Williams did not deserve clemency because he did not admit to the killings and refused to inform on fellow gang members. They also argued that the Crips gang that Williams helped to found in Los Angeles in 1971 has been responsible for hundreds of deaths, many of them in turf battles with the rival Bloods for control of the drug trade.

"Should redemption ever help spare a killer?" asked Paranzino of Throw Away the Key. "I'm reluctant to go there. ... The time to redeem yourself is before you go on a killing spree. The lesson ought to be 'Don't do the crime if you're not ready to bear the consequences.'"

Clemency has been granted sparingly since the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Outside of the mass clemency granted by Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on death row before leaving office in 2003, states have granted clemency to 67 death-row inmates while executing more than 1,000.

"Clemency's an endangered species," said Franklin E. Zimring, author of Contradictions of American Capital Punishment. "The rates are extremely low, and that would include extremely low in cases where people have turned themselves around."

Zimring, a professor of criminal law at the University of California, Berkeley, said Williams had probably hurt his appeals for clemency by maintaining his innocence.

"He can't show remorse for a crime that he says he didn't commit," Zimring said. "If he really wanted to hit the Catholic side of this governor, the way you do that is by saying, not only was that a hundred years ago, but I'm very sorry.

"You can't be sorry for things you say you didn't do. If Karla Faye Tucker were on death row in California, I think she'd get a clemency."

James Megivern, author of The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, says the issue is complicated in the United States by "our perennial problem of the relationship of church and state.

"Redemption is very clearly a religious term," said Megivern, professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "It is used most frequently in a Christian context as far as American experience is concerned. I suppose that many a politician would thereby back off from the use of it directly."

"The very fact that redemption immediately tunes one in to a religious context is going to make a lot of secular Americans nervous, even though the quality of mercy is not strained," he continued."The idea of granting mercy, clemency, forgiveness of a kind at any rate, it was part of Roman law, and thereby became part of British law, and thereby became part of American law. But it is one of the powers that governors are not very fond of using."

Celebrities taking up Williams' cause included Jamie Foxx, who played the gang leader in a cable movie about Williams; rapper Snoop Dogg, a former Crip; Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who wrote the book Dead Man Walking and was depicted in the movie and opera based on it; Bianca Jagger; and former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell. During Williams' 24 years on death row, he was nominated for Nobel Prizes in peace and literature.

"The one thing that is secure after this adventure of the last couple of weeks is Tookie Williams' place in the history of capital punishment in California," said Zimring, the Berkeley law professor. " This is a name and an event that will not soon be forgotten."

matthew.brown@baltsun.comThe Associated Press contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Discuss: Tookie Williams

    Was justice done? Readers weigh in.

  • Obama actions leave immigrants excited but nervous
    Obama actions leave immigrants excited but nervous

    When Rosalinda Monsalvo applies to avoid deportation under President Barack Obama's recently announced immigration program, she'll do so knowing she is exactly the kind of person the administration wanted to help.

Comments
Loading