Mercy for Tookie Williams

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has made it clear that he'll push hard for an execution date for Stanley "Tookie" Williams. There's nothing legally to stop him. On October 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. His execution is set for December 13.

Williams, convicted of four murders, has languished on Death Row for nearly a quarter of century. He contends that he got a bad shake. A mostly white jury convicted him. He had a subpar legal defense; the case against him was based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants. This is why Williams has adamantly refused to apologize or express remorse for the slayings. He says he didn't do it.

Williams also has a new legal team, and it's upped the ante. His lawyers claim that police investigators either botched or deliberately tampered with ballistics and crime-scene evidence. That's a stretch, and that almost certainly won't go very far.

So it comes down to this: Is Williams worth more to society alive than dead? That's the issue, and the sole issue, that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must grapple with in deciding whether to grant Williams clemency.

On the surface, the odds that the governor will let Williams live aren't good. California is one of 14 states where governors have sole authority to commute a condemned killer's sentence. But that would buck precedent.

In the nearly four decades since Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a brain-damaged Death Row inmate, no California governor has waived 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. Schwarzenegger has flatly refused to grant clemency to two other condemned murderers. Both times, he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes.

But Tookie is not just another model prisoner. The co-founder of the Crips street gang's story reads like a gory tale of gang violence, mayhem and destruction. Yet it also reads like a saintly tale of spiritual renewal, public service and human achievement. His prize-winning children's books, Nobel Peace Prize nominations and anti-violence messages have been the stuff of public acclaim. His radical, life-affirming turnabout has made him a near-universal symbol of hope that even the most hardened, bitter, and incorrigible street thug can find salvation.

A very much alive Williams can continue to send the message of hope and redemption to thousands of other violence-prone young men who wreak havoc on poor black communities.

True, governors are loath to grant clemency. They feel that the courts have spoken, and that their interference would be a subversion of the people's will and a perversion of justice. But that's a rigid, legalistic view that doesn't take into consideration human circumstances and legal abuses. Governors have intervened to commute sentences when it does serve the public good. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of virtually all condemned killers before departing office in 2003.

Ryan was not a rare and isolated case of a governor tempering justice with mercy. Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening declared a moratorium on executions before he left office. There was no loud howl for his political head when he took the courageous step. The reason was simple. Glendening crunched the numbers and found that nine of the 13 men on Death Row were black, and in nearly every case their victims were white. That was strong hint that the death penalty was riddled with racial bias, and needed a hard look.

Death-penalty advocates claim that unlike Maryland or Illinois, California's death penalty is not top-heavy with racial bias and legal misconduct, and that the public solidly opposes any tampering with the process. That's not true. In a state where blacks are only 12 percent of the population, they make up more than one third of those on Death Row. In nearly all cases their victims were white. A Field poll in June 2000 found that nearly three out of four persons said that they would support a moratorium on executions. Nearly a dozen California cities have called for a death penalty moratorium.

Schwarzenegger, unlike former Gov. Gray Davis, has also shown some flexibility when it comes to prisoner issues. He has approved paroles for convicted murderers who had shown by word and deed that hard work and a clean record count. Playing hardball now with prisoners who have turned their lives around would be a bad public policy shift.

With the handful of convicted killers who have shown by their humane actions that they have redeemed themselves, it makes no sense for a governor to hold them hostage to past political fears. Williams is certainly not Willie Horton, the convicted killer who, after being released on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, escaped and slashed a Maryland man and raped his fiancee. Schwarzenegger almost surely knows that. Further, clemency is not the same as freedom. Williams will likely spend the rest of his days in prison. That effectively eliminates the remote possibility that he could ever pose a threat to anyone on the streets.

The Williams case is unique. If Schwarzenegger grants him clemency, it won't set a frightening precedent that other condemned killers will cavalierly be let off the hook. It will simply be recognition that a prisoner who has shown that he can be a model and productive citizen will not be denied a second chance to do even more good for society.

Schwarzenegger should give Williams that second chance.

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