Why He Said No to Tookie

In a six-page brief, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he denied clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams because he committed heinous crimes and showed no remorse for his acts.

That seemed clear and straightforward enough. The multiple murders that Williams was convicted of, and allegedly boasted about, were gruesome. And to the bitter end, he steadfastly refused to apologize for them, or express any remorse. He said he didn't commit the crimes.

On the surface, his evasion was more than enough for Schwarzenegger to sink him, and to justify any governor's decision not to show mercy to a condemned killer. But there's more, much more to his decision not to spare Williams.

The fight over clemency is laced with a mix of politics, public sentiment on crime, and tradition. Governors almost never spare a condemned killer. There's simply no political gain in it. Many governors simply toss a prisoner's request for clemency into the round file. They consider even a show of willingness to consider clemency on their part a political kiss of death.

But that's not totally true. Fourteen of the fifteen governors, some of whom were conservative Republicans, that have granted clemency to condemned killers in the past few years have been reelected. The clemency grant did not adversely affect their approval ratings.

But that doesn't change their belief that clemency is a political nightmare, and that if they show clemency too often they'll be crucified by the voters, slammed by prosecutors, prison guards, and police officials, pounded in opinion polls, and go down to an inglorious defeat. There's, of course, the oft-cited example of example of Governor George Ryan in Illinois who commuted the death sentences of virtually all condemned killers before he departed office in 2003, and Maryland Governor Parris Glendening who clamped a moratorium on executions in 2002.

Ryan took action after hordes of Illinois death row inmates were exonerated. Glendening took action after university researchers found that the death penalty in the state was riddled with race bias. Seven of the eight killers on Maryland's death row were black and their victims were white. But those were the rare exceptions. Governors have granted only 25 clemencies to condemned killers during the past decade. That's a bare fraction of the number of prisoners executed.

During the same time, only five death row inmates have had their sentences commuted in any single year. The handful of governors that have granted clemency to condemned killers have acted only when there is near iron-clad proof of glaring irregularities in the physical evidence used to convict the condemned, or the condemned was legally insane. If Schwarzenegger had taken the bold step, and granted clemency to Williams, the backlash within the California Republican Party would have been swift and savage. Polls show that the state's Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-death penalty. He'll be in a tough reelection dogfight in 2006 with a Democratic candidate, backed by a united, well-financed party in a state where Democrats hold a crushing majority. Many of them are mad at him for his legislative bumbles and arrogance.

He can't afford to alienate Republicans. He needs their resources, money, endorsements, and votes. To have any chance of reelection, they must be in lockstep with him. That might not have happened if he had spared the life of a black gang boss, and convicted multiple murderer. Williams stirred the deep revulsion and terror of crime and violence, especially gang violence, in voters. That terror makes governors routinely shrink from bucking the hard line public tide on violence.

There was also much speculation that Schwarzenegger might defy the odds and grant clemency to Williams to burnish his credentials as a moderate. That way he'd curry favor with independents, and black voters. That was a pipedream. Black voters, and a wide body of independents, are fiercely anti-Schwarzenegger. They will do everything they can to defeat him in 2006. A nod toward Williams would not have changed that. It was a moot point anyway. Even if Williams had owned up to the murders, and shown the proper remorse for them, it wouldn't have changed anything. If Schwarzenegger had granted clemency based on Williams's remorse and sorrow, the public's crime jitters would have instantly kicked in. Conservatives would have mercilessly hammered him for showing leniency to a convicted multiple murderer. Democrats would have gleefully watched Schwarzenegger squirm from the political heat, if not done everything they could to turn it up a notch.

Schwarzenegger and Williams were trapped in an impossible political Catch 22. A decision to grant clemency was simply too politically risky both for the governor and Williams, who, in turn, could not afford to tarnish his public image as a redeemed man that was wrongly condemned. In the end, politics trumped them both.


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