Criminal or Criminalized?

An unattributed but relatively well-known quote reads, "Kill one man, and it's called murder; kill a hundred thousand, and it's called foreign policy." But there is a way to kill one man without calling it murder: capital punishment. And there is a kind of capital punishment that is preceded by use of biased informants, malicious prosecutors, racist prejudice, and weak evidence: American capital punishment.

Such is the predicament faced by Stan Tookie Williams, a death row inmate at San Quentin prison near San Francisco, California, who faces execution on December 13 at 12:01 a.m. unless he is granted clemency by the Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Williams, who founded the notorious Crips gang in South Central L.A. at the age of 18, was arrested and charged with the murder of four people in 1979, convicted in 1981, and sentenced to death row. But as Williams' day of execution approaches, a campaign aimed at saving his life, supported by a number of anti-death penalty groups and celebrities such as Jamie Foxx and Snoop Dogg, has taken root - and with good reason.

Stan Williams, or Tookie, as he is frequently called, has undergone a Malcolm X-like transformation while in prison. After spending several years in solitary confinement, Tookie emerged in 1993 as an inverse image of his former self, renouncing all gang ties and beginning a comprehensive crusade against gang violence.

He has produced nine anti-gang books aimed at children, including one which won an award from the American Library Association; he has spoken to schools and community groups imploring youth not to get caught up in gangs; and he has even drafted a specific program for resolving conflict violence between gangs - one which has been used to reduce violence between the feuding Blood and Crips gangs in New Jersey.

Explaining what he calls his "redemptive transformation," Tookie recently said in an interview:

"As a youngster growing up, I had the unenviable experience of digesting the most negative stereotypes about Black folks being illiterate, being criminals, being violent, being promiscuous, being indolent, etc. When you're spoon-fed these things on an incessant basis, you eventually morph into those negative stereotypes, unwittingly. That's what happened to me. I became the stereotypes that I was spoon-fed.
As far as amending the problems, I believe that education is the key. I know I consistently talk about this, but I believe it, because it's what woke me up. It was my form of an awakening - though over a period of time, because I've never had an epiphany or anything like that. I had to undergo years of battling my demons."
Tookie also downplays any glorification of his past, even when suggested by others. When an interviewer mentioned that some reporters said his founding of the Crips gang was initially a means of "protecting people in the community," Tookie responded: "People -- not me -- have a tendency to hyperbolize my past…We wanted to protect one another, for sure, but we were no angels, make no doubt about it…We were not the good guys."

It is undoubtedly both rare and remarkable for a man who is first immersed in violence and then caged in isolation to wage a struggle from within and change his entire outlook. It is even more remarkable when that man actively and continuously strives to help prevent and dissuade others from ruining their lives.

Activists hoping to save Tookie's life are certainly justified in pointing both to his own redemption and his outreach efforts as excellent reasons for granting him clemency. The story of Tookie's life is so compelling it has even made the big screen, with Jamie Foxx playing lead character in the 2004 film, Redemption. But in highlighting this appealing aspect of Tookie, activists sometimes underemphasize another important point: it is not Tookie, but rather the society that imprisoned him, that should be judged and scrutinized for its misdeeds.

Tookie has maintained his innocence from the beginning. More to the point, no compelling or reasonable evidence was ever produced in court to prove his guilt. Material evidence found at the scene was not linked to Tookie. Lance Lindsey, an anti-death penalty activist and executive director of Death Penalty Focus noted that the evidence presented against Tookie was mostly circumstantial. And what circumstance it was! Brought to bear against him was the testimony of informants who had felonies on their record. Indeed, the star witness against him, a white cellmate, was himself facing the death penalty for rape, murder, and mutilation. His sentence was reduced after his testimony.

Equally telling was the behavior of the prosecutor in the case. That he employed racist language in his closing argument, evoking the image of a beast in a jungle in describing Tookie, is reprehensible enough. But his main "achievement" was to selectively target and weed out Blacks from the jury pool. In another case, People v. Fuentes (1991), this prosecutor was scathingly attacked in a concurring opinion by Justice Mosk, who noted that he was guilty of "invidious discrimination" in another case just a few months prior, and wrote: "…I believe that we must place the ultimate blame on its real source - the prosecutor. It was he who unconstitutionally struck Black prospective jurors. The record compels this conclusion and permits none other. This was no "technical" or inadvertent violation. This prosecutor knew that such conduct was altogether improper."

Even the location of the trial itself was damning. The crime for which Tookie was tried occurred in Los Angeles, where Blacks comprise about 11 percent of the population and where the median household income is $10,000 below the state average. But the trial was held in Torrance, which has a Black population of only 2 percent and a median household income is $9,000 above the state average. Assuming that these statistics, taken from 2000, are not far removed from the reality of 1981, it is clear that Tookie was hardly tried by a jury of his peers.

The issue of racism is, of course, not limited to merely the behavior of the prosecutor or the location of the trial. The prevalence and permeation of racism in American society as a whole poisons and utterly undermines the possibility of a "fair" application of the death penalty, even if one would be inclined to support it in theory. Phil Gasper, a Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and anti-death penalty activist, pointed out in an interview that in the San Quentin complex about 40 percent of the death row inmates are Black, compared to a general state population of 7 percent. On a national level, 42 percent of death row inmates are Black even though Blacks comprise only 12 percent of the population. Even more illuminating: a defendant's chances of receiving the death penalty in a murder case drastically increase if the victim is white.

Let us sum up the result -- the evidence does not show beyond a reasonable doubt that Tookie Williams is guilty. Instead, it shows quite convincingly that American society is guilty on the count of racism. Unfortunately this rather important detail seems to have escaped most in America, where 66 percent of the public supports the death penalty (though that is down from the 70 percent range from 1982 to 1995) and 38 states allow it. This stands in stark contrast to the international scene, where no other Western democracy permits the death penalty, leaving the U.S. to join the esteemed ranks of the Congo, Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan, among others.

Interestingly, however, some who are in favor of letting Tookie die hail from the Black community. In a Dec. 5 Pacific News Service commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote, "Black critics bitterly reviled me for advocating clemency. They were adamant that Williams must pay for his crimes, and for the murder and mayhem the Crips gang, which he helped found, has unleashed on impoverished black communities."

The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it assigns all blame for an endemic social problem to one man. It may be emotionally convenient and satisfying, but making Tookie a scapegoat for larger social ills will not eradicate them. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that these figures in the Black community, in advocating Tookie's death, would be exacerbating the very problem they claim to be upset about. For it is Tookie's credibility and influence as a reformed ex-Crips gang leader that has allowed him to reach out and convince countless Black youth not to take the path of nihilism - youth who would otherwise be lost in its seductions.

Lewis Yablonsky, emeritus professor of criminology at California State University, Northridge, opined more than three years ago in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, "Williams is the only person I know of - gangster or criminologist - who has come up with any kind of articulate insight into black-on-black gang violence."

It is this insight - or rather, Tookie Williams' ability to overcome his past and help improve the future of others by applying this insight - that makes him an outstanding human being. Conversely, the institutional racism of a society that produces pre-redemptive Tookies on a daily basis - and seeks to kill and destroy genuinely transformed ones - is in no moral or practical position to kill Tookie, or anyone else.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.