If The State Kills Tookie

The dangling question in the raging debate over the fate of Stanley "Tookie" Williams is what if the state kills him? Though President Bush didn't specifically mention Williams's pending execution, he recently took the occasion of the execution of a North Carolina inmate, to publicly declare that the death penalty saves lives.

Death penalty opponents vehemently dispute that. They say that it's inhumane, and ineffectual. Victims rights groups say that killing Williams and other killers bring closure to the family members of the killer's victims. Many in the media worry that with passions running white hot over the case, Williams' execution could spark violence, and turn him into a martyr. These are hotly debated and disputed points.

There is no evidence that killing Williams or any of the other 1,000 men and women that states have executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 has deterred killers from killing. Eighteen of the twenty states with the highest murder rates impose the death penalty. Seventeen of twenty big cities with the highest murder rates are in death penalty states. Michigan and Indiana are next door to each other. One has the death penalty (Indiana), the other doesn't (Michigan), and two decades later their murder rates have remained fairly constant.

The murder rate in America did drop to a forty year low this year and that made headline news. But it made news only because the murder rate in America has been so stunningly high to begin with. Even with the drop, the 15,000 to 20,000 murders in America yearly, has remained fairly steady. The U.S. has the highest murder rate of any nation on the planet.

Despite the nation's stratospheric murder rates, the death penalty affects relatively few Americans other than the condemned killers, their families, and their victim's families. That's because most killers, including some of the worst, don't get the death penalty. Only one of several hundred murderers among the thousands of murders committed yearly get the death penalty.

Even tossing Texas into the execution total, who gets the death penalty depends on the victim, race, money, the location where the murder was committed, the quality of legal representation, and luck. Williams was one of the very few unlucky ones. Even then it takes decades for the condemned to exhaust their layers of legal appeals, and face execution. Williams has languished on death row for nearly a quarter century. When executions take place, they are done out of public view, and barely stir a ripple in the press or among the public.

The talk of violence, if Williams is killed, is mostly media talk, and that's only because Williams is black, many of his most impassioned and visible supporters are black, and the death penalty is wrongly seen as a black and white issue. But death penalty opponents come in all shapes and colors, and the most vigorous of them are white and middle class with a sprinkle of high profile celebrities among them.

There is also too much doubt, disinterest, and even support for the death penalty among many blacks for it solely to be a black-white issue. Pro-death penalty blacks are furious at him and other blacks that prey on poor, black communities. Williams's death in the words of Emerson about the execution of John Brown in 1859 will not "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." His death will be a great tragedy, a monumental waste of human potential, but it won't canonize him, let alone spark violence.

Then there's the wide belief that death penalty provides closure for victim's families. That's even more questionable. The state killing of Williams will erase his life, but it can't totally erase the pain, rage, and grief that victim's survivors experience. That's simply too intense, and personal. The debate over Williams's fate is a textbook example of that.

The stepmother of Albert Owens, the 7-Eleven store clerk, and one of the four victims that Williams was convicted of gunning down, has publicly said that Williams must die, and that his death will bring relief for Owens's family. Though Owens's brother, Wayne, does not support clemency, he's just as vocal that his execution is "a no-win" situation for everyone. He has no plans to attend the execution.

Owens is no exception to the rule that murder victim's families routinely cork champagne at a killer's death. In 1995, reporters were stunned at the sight of a spirited demonstration by a contingent of family members and relatives of the murdered victims of at the federal prison Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City terror bomber, was scheduled for execution. They weren't there to revel in McVeigh's execution. They were there to condemn it. They bombarded President Clinton with letters and petitions demanding that he be spared.

They, and a spate of groups, such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation actively crusade to scrap the death for any and all killers, and that includes those facing death for murdering their loved ones.

Williams's execution will not resolve these muddled and contentious issues. They will continue to tear states and the public for years to come. In other words, no one wins.

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