Shut down death row


Los Angeles Times

October 27, 2005

STANLEY "TOOKIE" WILLIAMS is a charismatic symbol of what's wrong with the death penalty — and of what's wrong with the debate about the death penalty. His story of sin and redemption powerfully illustrates the unfairness of capital punishment. But to argue that capital punishment is unjust for some defendants is to concede that it may be acceptable for others.

The reason to oppose capital punishment has to do with who we are, not who death row inmates are. The death penalty is inappropriate in all situations because it is unbefitting of a civilized society. Williams' case, though poignant, is irrelevant to this argument.

Part of what makes Williams such an effective symbol in the debate over capital punishment is his compelling story. If there was a hall of shame for criminals, Williams would deserve his own wing. Williams founded the violent and oppressive Crips gang, dealers of crack cocaine and death by gunfire who spread their lethal gospel nationwide. He was convicted of four 1979 gun murders, and who knows what other violence he masterminded as the Crips leader.

By most accounts, however, Williams has become a very different person in his nearly quarter-century in San Quentin. He has written children's books warning against gang life, debunked the thug glamour of prison, helped broker gang treaties and, absurdly, been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by supporters who romanticize his rehabilitation. There is even a TV movie about Williams' jailhouse conversion.

Williams is a good symbol, and good symbols are important to opponents of the death penalty. Yet proponents have their symbols too. And arguing over symbols fails to reach the core of the injustice of capital punishment.

Which is not to say there aren't practical arguments against the death penalty. Putting people to death is more costly than incarcerating them for life, and even then our legal system is not foolproof. Mounting evidence that innocent people were on death row led Illinois to impose a moratorium on executions in 2000, and the pace of executions elsewhere has slowed because of similar concerns. Even U.S. Supreme Court justices are voicing concern about the death penalty's application.

California, which has executed only 11 people since 1976, should give up on capital punishment altogether, like 12 U.S. states and most of what is often referred to as the "civilized world." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should cancel Williams' execution, scheduled for Dec. 13, and Williams should spend the rest of his days in jail. So should everyone else on death row — even those who haven't had their lives turned into a TV movie.