Get AlterNet's Headlines Newsletter:
Email: 
no thanks
News & Politics

Saying Goodbye to Tookie

The execution of a reformed criminal was a grave miscarriage of justice, but there is still hope that Tookie's passing can lead to the end of the death penalty.
[Editor's Note: This is the edited text of a speech given by Bianca Jagger at Stanley Tookie Williams' memorial service.]

When I learned that there was going to be a public viewing of Stanley Tookie Williams' casket for friends and the public to pay their respect, I couldn't help thinking about the tragic irony -- Williams had to be executed before he could be free to visit this church. I can imagine how often he must have dreamed about the possibility of wandering out of prison during those long lonely years in jail. We must rejoice for him, for he is Free at Last, and no one can prevent him from being here, not even Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On Nov. 21, I met Stanley Tookie Williams at the San Quentin State prison. That morning the weather was beautiful, and the sun was shining. A prison guard escorted me; we walked approximately 1,000 meters before we arrived at the death row unit. I had expected to meet Williams behind a barrier of glass and wire partition, as I had when I met Karla Fay Tucker and Gary Graham in death row in Texas. Instead, I was going to meet Williams face to face. He was already inside a small cell with Jesse Jackson and Barbara Becnel, his co-author and longtime supporter. Before I entered, Williams put his hand behind his back through a small aperture in the metal door for the guard to handcuff him. Once I was inside and the door was closed, they removed the handcuffs. He reached out to say hello. Williams was tall and had a muscular build. It was visible that he was once a bodybuilder.

He appeared calm and at peace with himself as I shook his hand and sat next to him. I had so many questions and knew my time with him was limited. I told him I had recently listened to a debate about his case on National Public Radio, and felt very disturbed when his defender had to admit that he was not willing to apologize or express remorse for the murders for which he was convicted and condemned to death. I asked him why.

He answered in a calm and measured voice, "I am innocent. I did not commit the crimes for which I was sentenced to death. I cannot ask for forgiveness and express remorse for a murder I didn't commit, even if by refusing to do so, I risk losing my life. I cannot lie in order to live."

I asked him why he thought he was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit. "I had a nasty reputation, and my reputation was put on trial. I had co-founded the street gang the Crips, and had earned a bad reputation for being violent and beating up people. I was tried, convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The prosecutor, Robert Martin, dismissed three prospective black jurors, because he was seeking an all-white jury; he is notorious for engaging in racial discrimination when composing a jury."

"In addition, I had an incompetent legal counsel," he said in a lower voice. "I have apologized on many occasions for my crimes, and I genuinely have tried to redeem myself."

How? I asked.

"I have written nine books to bring young people away from a life of violence and street gangs. I educated myself and became an autodidact. As you can imagine, this place has little room for rehabilitation. It was up to me to change."

"For the first eight or nine years, I gave this place hell. I spent years in solitary confinement. My redemption came by virtue of my education. I reflected on my life, I developed a conscience. I have written nine books to encourage kids to stay away from gangs. I worked with churches, schools, and communities to warn kids about the pitfalls of gangster life. I wrote a 'Peace Protocol.' It was used to create a truce between rival gangs in New Jersey and other states."

By the time I met him, his case had receive widespread support among religious leaders, Nobel Prize winners, celebrities and international figures, and his execution has further ignited the debate into America's barbaric, medieval and outdated death penalty policy.

That was my first visit to San Quentin, but it was not my first visit to a prisoner on death row awaiting an imminent execution. I was anguished and upset at the thought that Stanley Tookie Williams had only 22 days to live, and that his life clock was ticking away. I remember having the same disturbing thought when I visited Karla Fay Tucker and Gary Graham -- known as Shaka Sankofa -- on death row in Texas. Both hoped George W. Bush, then Texas governor, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole would change their sentence from death to life imprisonment without parole. They were both executed by lethal injection.

I witnessed the shocking state-sanctioned murder of Gary Graham. Across America and throughout the world people believed he was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. He was convicted and sentenced to death, based on a sole eyewitness's testimony. Karla Fay Tucker drew widespread opposition to her execution because of her rehabilitation, religious conversion and her work on the Scared Straight Program to help adolescent drug abusers. George W. Bush washed his hands as a modern Pontius Pilate and made a mocking remark about her in the media. The Board of Pardons and Parole has never recommended that a case be commuted on the basis of mercy or rehabilitation, and has never spared a death row prisoner from execution by lethal injection.

Stanley Tookie Williams' life depended on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor had the authority to grant a pardon if he believed Stanley Tookie Williams was innocent. He had the authority to grant clemency and commute his death sentence to life imprisonment without parole if he believed that Williams was rehabilitated, no longer presented a threat to society and had showed remorse for the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. In addition, the governor could have granted a reprieve to allow Williams' lawyers to present a discovery motion to "seek evidence that should have been disclosed at the time of his trial but was suppressed and continues to be suppressed by the prosecution."

Stanley Tookie Williams was on death row for nearly a quarter of a century. In 1971, Williams co-founded the notorious Los Angeles street gang The Crips, and in 1981 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Since Williams' incarceration, he decried gang violence and made great efforts to reform the violent conduct of others. He had written nine books to warn youth about the dangers of gang life. His enlightening work has touched thousands of troubled youths and many have since turned away from gang violence. To those transformed by Williams' writings, he has come to represent a symbol of hope and purpose. For his good works, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recommended that Mr. Williams would make a "worthy candidate" for an act of executive clemency.

Williams was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2001. He was also awarded the U.S. presidential service award in 2005 for his outstanding work to benefit the country's youth.

The execution of Williams is but a glimpse into the broken system of justice in the State of California. Two other men are on the brink of being executed by lethal injection; their convictions were based on unreliable informants, racially biased practices, and poor legal counsel.

Death sentences in California continue to rely on discriminatory practices and substandard legal representation. California has no formal system of proportionality review in either the trial courts or the state supreme court, and as a result, no mechanism exists to bring the issue of racial discrimination before state courts. This lack of meaningful review creates fertile ground for an institutionalized pattern and practice of racial bias.

There is little question that in capital cases, a competent attorney can mean the difference between life and death. Often defendants are sentenced to death not for committing the worst crimes, but for having the worst lawyers. Executing a person, because of the incompetence of their attorneys, instead of the gravity of their crime, only adds to the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the death penalty.

The California State Senate established a bipartisan Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. The Justice Commission has two years to identify the problems in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful conviction and wrongful execution and to make specific recommendations to the legislature and the governor as to what is needed to make California's criminal justice system just, fair and accurate. The commission has just begun to investigate these disturbing issues.

Gov. Schwarzenegger exhibited total disregard for due process by allowing the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. It is indefensible to have allowed his execution while critical questions about the administration of justice in the state of California are being reviewed by a bipartisan committee. The governor should have halted all executions until the investigation of the Justice Commission is completed.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's decision to allow Stanley Tookie Williams' execution revealed his disregard for human rights, due process and the U.S. Constitution. It was indefensible to allow Stanley Tookie Williams' execution while critical questions about the administration of justice in the state of California are being reviewed by a bipartisan committee.

Gov. Schwarzenegger failed to exhibit leadership by denying clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams and allowing his execution. He failed to recognize that it is the human capacity for change and redemption that endows us all with the potential to become better people. Killing Stanley Tookie Williams completed the cycle of violence and risked shutting out the light of redemption that exists in all of us. Gov. Schwarzenegger failed to realize that the criminal courts in the U.S. are the institution least affected by the civil rights movement. The courts have failed and are failing in their duty to ensure due process for all. The death penalty in the state of California is selectively applied; it feeds prejudice against minorities, the poor and those lacking political clout.

Today we should remember the defiant last words of Gary Graham. "I'm an innocent black man that is being murdered. What is happening here is an outrage for any civilized country. They are going to keep on lynching us for the next 100 years if you do not carry on [the] tradition of resistance. We may lose this battle, but we will win the war. You must continue to demand a moratorium on all executions." These words are a chilling reminder that Bush's U.S.A. and Schwarzenegger's state are home to racial division and bitter injustice. It is a place where life, liberty and happiness are all too often replaced by the pursuit of death, imprisonment and hatred.

Gov. Schwarzenegger must declare a moratorium on all executions in California.
For over 20 years, Bianca Jagger has campaigned for human rights, social and economic justice, and environmental protection throughout the world.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World