Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Politics of death...

This story is another example of why capital punishment in America is wholly unjust and arbitrary - and is simply unjustified.

The story of Tookie Williams is pretty well know these days. Founder of a notorious gang (the Crips) convicted of four murders, but now while on death row, he has become a leading anti-gang activist and is credited by many former gang members as being the reason for them getting out of the gang lifestyle.

Does that 'conversion' merit the clemency of his sentence of death? I don't know. Obviously I tend to think so - but I'm not convinced that capital punishment works to begin with. Regardless of if he "deserves" clemency, the reason why Williams' case is a textbook example of the arbitrariness and illegitimacy of the death penalty is this:
"Clemency has become part of the politics of criminal punishment and has been slowly evaporating," said Frank Zimring, a clemency expert at the University of California at Berkeley. "When it comes to crime and punishment, there's been a conspicuous toughening of the governor and the public."
Schwarzenegger is still smarting from the defeat of four ballot measures he backed during a November special election, and political analysts have said that granting clemency would not sit well with the conservative base the Republican needs if he hopes to win re-election next year.

An independent poll last year found that 68 percent of Californians support the death penalty -- 54 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans.

"If he granted clemency, I would say, it would be a very divisive opinion," pollster Mark DiCamillo said. "Large segments of the public would take him to task."

I do not know Tookie Williams. I do not know if he committed the heinous crimes he has been convicted of. I do not know if his anti-gang work while on death row is a result of true repentance and conversion, or simply an effort to save his own life.

But I do know that the life and death of a human being - a human being named Tookie Williams - is likely going to be determined more by polls and politics than justice. I do know that is shameful.

Other capital punishment posts:
The wise words of Harry Blackmun...
An incredibly sad textbook example...
Stevens: 'Serious flaws' in death penalty
Believe it or not...
Go buy this book...
Capital Punishment in Texas...
Will Texas lose the death penalty?
Lethal Injustice...
Software Models Capital Punishment Outcomes

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Like you, I struggle with the morality of capital punishment. Human instinct leads us to want to exact vengeance upon those that have wronged us. However, as a predominately Christian society, there are some serious doubts as to whether or not we should be in the business of taking lives. Regardless of how one interprets the first amendment, laws are not created in a vacuum. The fact of the matter is that the majority of the people in this country are Christian and we have passed legislation that permits the use of the death penalty.

I disagree with you on one major point. I do not believe that Mr. Williams’ life or death was determined by polls and politics. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Williams made that decision when he chose a life of lawlessness. Whether you believe that he was a product of his environment or you believe, as I do, that we are each responsible for our choices, he chose a lifestyle that glorified death. As a founder and member of the Crips, he was quite willing to accept death as a penalty for allegiance to that organization.

As for Mr. Zimring’s, I believe his expertise remarks on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s motivations to be suspect at best. UC Berkley has reputation as a decidedly left leaning organization and, in my opinion, is not capable of offering an unbiased analysis. Mr. Zimring cannot with any certainty pretend to understand Gov. Scharzenegger’s motivations for denying clemency. Mr. Zimring can only speculate.

The supposition that granting clemency would be an unpopular position and hurt Mr. Swarzenegger’s re-election chances is a matter for debate. Last time I checked, California is a blue state. I find it hard to believe that Mr. Swarzenegger is relying heavily on his conservative Republican base to get re-elected when it is the moderate Democratic voters that will be the deciding factor for re-election.

I also take issue with Mr. Zimring’s statement: “When it comes to crime and punishment, there's been a conspicuous toughening of the governor and the public.” According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), the state of California has never granted clemency to a Death Row inmate. I find Mr. Zimring’s statement to be conspicuous and not the actions of Gov. Swarzenegger. Gov. Swarzenegger’s refusal to grant clemency is consistent with the actions of his predecessors. (

I do not know if Tookie Williams was guilty of the crimes for which he was prosecuted. However, I am certain that Mr. Williams had his day in court. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Throughout the years his judgment and subsequent verdict have been reaffirmed many times. His requests for a new trial have been rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the California Supreme Court, and the United States Supreme Court (

Stanley Williams was sentenced to death for the murder of four innocent Human Beings. If we are to have any semblance of order in our society we have to believe we got it right, especially after so many years of legal scrutiny. Even if you do not believe in the morality of the death penalty, Mr. Williams was executed according to the laws and customs of our nation. Justice was served.