How Will Schwarzenegger Respond to Tookie Williams?

By now many know the story of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, courtesy of the smash performance by Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in the made-for-TV film "Redemption." The story of the co-founder of the Crips street gang is a gory tale of mayhem and destruction -- and also a saintly tale of spiritual renewal, public service and human achievement. The whole of Tookie's story could be headed for a tragic end when his execution date is formally set. That could happen at an Oct. 24 hearing in Los Angeles.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has made it clear that he'll push hard for an execution date. On Oct. 11 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reopen Williams' case. That pretty much slammed the legal door shut on one of America's most famous death row inmates. Williams, convicted of four murders committed during two robberies, has languished on death row for nearly a quarter of century. He says he is innocent and claims he got a bad shake: a mostly white jury convicted him, he got a sub-par legal defense and his case was based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants.

A national campaign has been launched to prod Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Williams clemency. California is one of 14 states where governors have sole authority to commute a condemned killer's sentence. But a commutation would buck precedent. In the nearly four decades since Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a brain-damaged death row inmate, no California governor has waved a death sentence. And Reagan took action only because the latest scientific test to determine brain damage was not available at the time of the condemned killer's trial.

Tookie Williams, on the other hand, seems a prime candidate for clemency. His prize-winning children's books, Nobel Peace Prize nomination and anti-violence messages have been the stuff of public acclaim. His radical, life-affirming about-face has made him a near-universal symbol of hope that even the most bitter and incorrigible street thug can find salvation.

But that's not necessarily enough, and Schwarzenegger has said as much. The governor has flatly refused to grant clemency to two condemned murderers. Both times he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes.

Schwarzenegger is not unique among governors when it comes to quashing clemency appeals. True, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, calling the state's capital punishment system "arbitrary and capricious," commuted the death sentences of all 156 condemned killers on Illinois' death row before departing office in 2003. But that was a rare exception to the unwritten rule that governors don't grant clemency. They're scared stiff of being tagged as soft on crime and being insensitive to victims. In the 40 years prior to Ryan's humane action, only one death row inmate in Illinois got executive clemency. Since his mass clemency, only seven other persons have gotten their death sentences commuted nationally.

Even if Schwarzenegger were inclined to grant Williams clemency, he may feel trapped by the relentless politics of crime and punishment and his nosedive in popularity. His ratings wallow at the bottom of the tank along with President Bush's. A majority of California voters blast him for ramming a costly and unnecessary special election onto the Nov. 8 California ballot.

William's personal turnabout is exemplary, and sparing his life is morally the right thing to do. Clemency, after all, is not the same as freedom -- Williams will still likely spend the rest of his days in prison. But 2006 is an election year in California, and the last thing that Republican Schwarzenegger wants is to be plastered with is the "soft on crime" label for sparing the life of a black, ex-gang leader and convicted multiple murderer.

Playing hardball with the lives of prisoners who have turned their lives around may seem like a sure way for a politician to snatch votes. But Williams is no Willie Horton, the convicted murderer and rapist who was released from a Massachusetts prison on furlough and committed more assaults. Republicans used Horton to bash Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential elections. Schwarzenegger almost surely knows that Tookie Williams can't be used in the same way. Williams, through his remorse and good deeds, deserves the second chance at life he's worked hard for. Schwarzenegger should give it to him.

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