Last month's execution of Stanley Tookie Williams is part of a grotesque revenge ritual that likely will deepen the cycle of violence it purports to diminish.
Williams, a co-founder of the Crips street gang, had transformed himself into a passionate anti-gang activist during his near quarter century in prison. When he talked of personal redemption and racial pride, it had a ring of authenticity---and it rang a bell with other inmates. Record numbers of black ex-inmates now are flooding into communities that are woefully ill-equipped to absorb them. These returning community members are angrier than when they left. Cooped in fetid warehouses that long ago abandoned the goal of rehabilitation, they usually lack marketable skills and often scorn old-school black leadership. The resulting community friction is heating up and likely will worsen.
Williams embodied a style of leadership that is needed now more than ever, and America had much more to gain from his presence than his absence. He helped to bridge the widening gap between a growing class of criminalized "have nots" and an increasingly hostile black and white mainstream. Commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment would have allowed his message and his example to reach a larger audience.
But the state of California concluded that Williams' death would serve a greater purpose. In the name of the people, the state committed premeditated murder to foster the notion that committing murder warrents the punishment of death. This circular logic is more than just dizzying; it corrupts the very logic of criminal justice.
A preponderance of studies have shown that capital punishment does not deter crime, ensure equal justice or promote domestic tranquility. But the practice persists because it resonates with a human impulse that demands vengeance. State-sponsored executions provide public sanction for that impulse, applying a Babylonian calculus to provide justification for this outmoded public ritual, positing a metaphysical scorekeeper with an "eye-for-an-eye" balance sheet. Our embrace of capital punishment is an atavistic romance.
This U.S. tolerance for official killing perplexes much of the Western world, which largely views it as barbaric. Entreaties from the Vatican and the European Union to spare Williams' life failed, providing once again a vivid example of American exceptionalism on issues of social justice. Is our fondness for the death penalty a legacy of America's "frontier spirit," which fueled the massive massacre of indigenous inhabitants? Could it be a cultural remnant of a slave society's need for brutal enforcement of racial hierarchy? (After all, most executions occur in the former "slave states.")
But even eye-for-an-eye advocates should abhor the possibility of executing the wrong person. Williams was convicted on circumstantial evidence largely on the testimony of dubious witnesses; some of the questions surrounding the case were murky enough to warrant reasonable doubt. But his notoriety as a co-founder of the infamous Crips street gang mooted that doubt. The issue of his possible innocence has fueled a renewed focus on wrongful convictions.
Public awareness of wrongful convictions is the primary reason support for the death penalty is down to 64 percent from a high of 80 percent in 1994. Former Illinois governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executing death row inmates in 2000 after the state released 13 Death Row inmates who were wrongfully convicted. His executive order began a slow roll of concern among other states. New Jersey is the most recent: On January 10 the state legislature signed an order suspending executions while a panel examines their fairness.
Death penalty abolitionists will gain new support if campaigns to determine whether the state executed the wrong people bear fruit. The 1993 execution of Ruben Cantu in Texas and the 1995 execution of Larry Griffin in Missouri are being reexamined in the face of new evidence that casts doubt on their guilt
No account of William's state-sanctioned slaying would be complete without a discussion of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's weird logic in refusing to grant him clemency. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption," Schwarzenegger argued. Williams consistently insisted he was innocent of the four murders for which he was charged in 1981. (Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang and Yu-Chin Yang Lin were the victims.) Thus, the governor demanded the former gang leader admit to murders he denied committing in order to gain clemency. The logical inconsistency of Schwarzenegger's ruling is par for the course when dealing with issues surrounding capital punishment. Paradox is inherent to a punishment that prescribes killing for killing.
But even if the death penalty made sense, it was senseless to kill a man whose life could have prevented many more killings. Unfortunately, we're going to need all the Tookies we can get.