Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of the Crips gang and convicted murderer, in the absence of the governor’s act of clemency, commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, will be put to death by lethal injection on December 13.
His claim of innocence cannot be summarily dismissed in light of the numerous reversals obtained by revelations of DNA evidence. That our system of justice is flawed has been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt. Moreover, Williams stands as a rare and classic example of rehabilitation. He has become a powerful spokesperson against the gangster life. He has written children’s books and been nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Aside from the straightforward moral question of whether the state should be engaged in the taking of human lives, the question that must be resolved in all cases of capital punishment is this: Is it in the interest of society?
It is traditionally argued that public safety is the first interest of government. The death penalty is said to serve public safety (a) by assuring that the punished individual will do no further harm and (b) by deterring others from committing crimes that may result in the same fate.
No one denies that society has a legitimate interest in protecting itself from dangerous individuals. Where life imprisonment without parole is an option, however, as it clearly is in the Tookie Williams case, the principle of self-protection is fully served without the death penalty. Moreover, there is a compelling case that Williams’ current work against gangs has saved lives and will continued to do so by leading young people in directions other than the gangster life.
Whether he was rehabilitated by the system or simply by time and his own evolution as a human being, his is a convincing case that rehabilitation is possible. He is not the man he once was.
If there is a deterrent effect in the Williams case, it will happen when he is executed. It will be deterrence against rehabilitation and reform. It will be a very public notice that society places little value in the positive works of a condemned individual. You are the crime and no act of redemption can arrest the decree.
In the interest of society, Tookie Williams should be allowed to continue his writing and his work that may, in some measure, repair some of the harm he caused in his former life.
Society has no interest in killing for vengeance. It is time that the people of all nations moved beyond that guttural, inhumane response. It is time we banished the concept that justice cannot be served and closure cannot be achieved unless blood is spilled.
It is painful to observe the grief-born rage of victim survivors who cannot let go. They seem to believe it is their duty not to let go. They seem to believe that anger will comfort them and revenge will ease their pain. Sadly, they are wrong but they can never admit it for that also would betray their profound grief.
In truth, vengeance may be sweet in the movies but it is only a surface medicine at best. It does nothing to heal the wound or ease the sorrow of loss. The healing can never be initiated by opening another wound.
It is time we accepted what the civilized world has long recognized: The taking of human life by a nation or institution of government is a crime against humanity.