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Death is Dying -(Where is the Leader to Help It on Its Way?

Facing the most critical decision a human being can make, whether to allow a man to live or send him to the executioner, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed to meet privately with lawyers on both sides of the case of Stanley Tookie Williams on Dec. 8, five days before the convicted murderer turned anti-gang activist is scheduled to die by lethal injection in California's death chamber.

Schwarzenegger must decide if he will use his God-like power to spare the life of Williams, a founder of the Crips street gang who has been on death row since being convicted of four 1979 murders. Last invoked in California in 1967 by Gov. Ronald Reagan, Executive Clemency is seen as the “Third Rail” of politics. Governors across the nation cower at its mention.

But they tremble at a wraith. In fact, state killing in America is itself dying. It's dying because of people like Harold Wilson, Larry Griffin, Ruben Cantu and Williams himself. And as the people hunger for someone to point the way, the question becomes, Who has the courage to lead?

Could it be Schwarzenegger?

Americans can no longer square their sense of fairness with a death system more devoted to politics than justice. Our juries are increasingly reluctant to respond to the impassioned cries of politically ambitious prosecutors and so-called “victim's rights” groups seeking blood.

They are stunned at the stream of innocents pouring forth from our death rows. They see Harold Wilson of Pennsylvania, and 121 others across the nation who preceded him to freedom after years of waiting for the executioner, as proof of a broken system they had been assured represented “the people” fairly, honestly and honorably. Wilson, the sixth person to be exonerated in Pennsylvania alone, was the victim of a now-officially-acknowledged racist practice that excluded blacks from his jury. After 16 years on death row, he was freed Nov. 15 when new results of DNA testing were introduced at a new trial.

Off-balance from the steady drip of what seems to be an almost daily death-row exoneration, decent citizens were further staggered by the news that St. Louis' Chief Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce had agreed to reopen the case that convicted and ultimately executed Larry Griffin over 10 years ago. Faced with the confounding results of an investigation by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Joyce must now deal with the odious task of explaining, rationalizing or justifying Missouri's killing of an innocent man.

And no sooner did Larry Griffin's name slip from the news under the guise of “further investigation” than down came the thunderbolt of Ruben Cantu. A 17-year-old gang-banger in San Antonio, Texas, Cantu was tried, convicted and executed in Texas' killing factory in 1993 on the testimony of the sole witness to the crime, a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant who has now revealed he was pressured by police to name the boy.

Texas, America's busiest and most boastful executioner, is reeling at this development. The district attorney at the time, according to the Houston Chronicle, said it was a mistake to prosecute Cantu for capital murder and admitted that the criminal justice system allowed people to be convicted based on mistaken or corrupted evidence. (Former D.A. Milsap has since repudiated the death penalty in its entirety.) Learning of the news, the Cantu jury's forewoman said, “the bottom line is an innocent person was put to death and we all have our finger in that.” The Houston Chronicle has suggested the possibility of granting Ruben Cantu a posthumous pardon similar to the one the state of Georgia gave Lena Baker in August of this year. Baker, a black woman, was executed for murder in 1945 despite her claim of self-defense. She was recently determined to have been innocent.

But, “Oops, sorry” and a momentary doff of the official cap are not enough when the state goes smugly through its deadly ritual and takes an innocent life. A pardon doesn't return them to their loved ones. Something more is owed to the innocent victims of political killing in a society that claims to lead the world in human rights.

The sickening knowledge that “we all have our finger in that” festers as cases of rank injustice pile onto the American conscience and death's apologists find themselves under ever-increasing pressure to scare up ways to justify a colossally expensive system shot through with racism, bias against the poor, police and prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective court-appointed defenders and the inevitable: simple human error. With the "deterrence" rationale moldering in its grave and the soul-destroying banner of "retribution" yanked up in a desperate attempt at replacement, queasy Americans long for the leader who will point the way to save them from themselves.

But from whence comes leadership?

Major religions long opposed state killing nominally, with Christians uncomfortably aware of Jesus' fate. But most religious leaders in America cowered in silence rather than risk the ire of their constituents. Until, that is, Pope John Paul II made it a personal issue and ignited the discussion. Following his lead, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops earlier this month renewed its commitment to break the cycle of violence and “abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life… The use of the death penalty,” they said, “ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to all society.”

Not to be outdone, Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and heretofore a strong death penalty supporter, said “If you're going to be committed to it, you have to be as committed to its fair and just application, and it's not been applied fairly and justly in this society.” (Meet the Press, 3/27/05).

But weekend principles dim in the face of worldly reality, so where is the political leadership? Beyond a few token gestures on the national scene, cowardice reigns. At the state level, conventional wisdom says, “in politics the death penalty only cuts one way: you kill.” This spinelessness was cast in bold relief by the extraordinarily courageous act of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a self-described conservative Republican who, sickened by the egregious failure of his state's system, resurrected the decaying ideal of Executive Clemency and emptied his death row in a single stroke in 2003, pardoning four men he found innocent and commuting 167 others to life without parole. Sadly, Ryan's act spawned little willingness to emulate his courage and the piteous plague rolled on. In California, Schwarzenegger's predecessor, Gray Davis, demonstrated his heartlessness by refusing to intervene in the executions of the likely innocent Thomas Thompson and the shell-shocked Manny Babbit, two for whom Executive Clemency was designed.

So today the "non-politician" faces the test of his humanity as California vies with Texas in scheduling three men for execution in the next three months. The first, Stanley Tookie Williams, provides Schwarzenegger with the opportunity to put his muscle where his mouth is. The governor, who renamed the Department of Corrections the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, will either cave to the pressures of politics-as-usual or save the life of a man whose personal transformation has impacted thousands of young people around the world.

Williams was one of the founders of the Crips, the notorious street gang that began in South Central Los Angeles and spread widely. An angry young man, he was someone whom the police wanted off the streets. Nearly 25 years ago he was arrested for the murder of four people in two different robberies. Throughout his trial, conviction and death sentence, he continually and consistently denied committing the killings.

What is known is that even after getting a change of venue to a “whiter” jurisdiction outside the downtown area, the prosecutor still excused blacks from the jury pool, a practice since held unconstitutional by higher courts. With Williams forced to sit before the jury in shackles and chains, the prosecutor used highly charged terms with clear racial implications to secure a conviction that a federal appeals court judge later described as based on “circumstantial evidence and the testimony of witnesses whose credibility was highly suspect.”

No evidence tied Williams directly to the crime. The “highly suspect” witnesses were five men who were freed immediately or granted greatly reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. Such so-called "snitch testimony" has corrupted numerous convictions and resulted in many being imprisoned who were later found innocent. How many have been killed through this nefarious practice we don't know. In some instances, notably in Los Angeles County, prosecutors have since been exposed as using snitches they knew were liars to help secure convictions.

On the basis of these facts, one cannot assume Williams was wrongly convicted. But it is worth noting that he has been consistent in denying the charges, even after going through the extraordinary change he experienced, and acknowledging and apologizing for his acts during his lawless years.

The process of change began when he spent years in “the hole,” solitary confinement of the most drastic kind. Given a Bible, he later asked for a dictionary. An ensuing process of self-examination included teaching himself to read and ultimately to write. Personal work and studies birthed the need to reach out and try to make amends for his past. This in turn resulted in his writing a number of books: the “Tookie Speaks Out” series aimed at grade-school children, that deals with gangs, drugs, self-esteem, violence, choosing the right friends and other important aspects in the lives of ghetto kids. “Life in Prison,” for junior high school-aged children, dispels the myth that going to prison is a necessary and important step toward manhood. And “Blue Rage, Black Redemption,” is his powerful – and empowering -- autobiography. Through these books and his lectures on videotape and by telephone from death row to schools, organizations and groups of kids who want to hear from him, Williams has become a positive influence for young people all over the world, encouraging thought, constructive involvement and hope.

Williams' counseling helped bring about a gang truce in Los Angeles, while a videotaped speech spurred another in Newark, N.J. His Internet Project for Street Peace has reached young people as far away as Switzerland and South Africa. All of these efforts, for which he was nominated for a Nobel Prize, encourage kids to stay in school and counsel against gangs, violence and being seduced by the ethic of street life.

Will he live or will he die? Thumb up or thumb down? This, then, is the stark choice presented all of us in the person of our elected leader. Does he kill a man who has become a force for good in our society, a man to whom the young look for guidance? Governor Schwarzenegger says he is “dreading” the decision, but that's the burden of leadership. And as the countdown continues, the pressure intensifies. Last Tuesday, Virginia's Governor Mark Warner reawakened mercy in America by defying political wisdom and granting Executive Clemency to Robin Lovitt, who had been slated to be the executioner's 1000th notch in the modern game of death-by-the-state.

So once again the spotlight is on Schwarzenegger. Acting for us, does he play the status quo politician, washing his hands Pilate-like and letting the axe fall? Or does he affirm the human capacity for transformation, at once reinforcing the meaning of hope for young people and opening the door of possibility to Americans who hunger for a shaft of light in a bleak time?


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L.A. Times Letter (2005)

Mr. Steve Lopez Los Angeles Times Dear Steve, As one of those characterized in today's column about Stanley Williams' execution as “the usual Hollywood rabble,” I'm insulted not only by that unneces


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