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Clemency for Tookie a Signal to Black Youth

ED GORDON, host:

Unless California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger intervenes, Stanley "Tookie" Williams will be executed on December 13th. Williams is the co-founder of the Crips street gang. Twenty-five years ago, he was convicted of four murders in Los Angeles and sentenced to die. But in San Quentin Prison, he spoke out against gangs, wrote prize-winning children's books, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Commentary Earl Ofari Hutchinson says these are only a few reasons why Williams' sentence should be commuted.


Stanley "Tookie" Williams has languished on death row for nearly a quarter of a century. He contends that he got a bad shake. A mostly white jury convicted him, he had a sub-par legal defense, the case against him was based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants. This is why Williams has adamantly refused to apologize or express remorse for the slayings. He says he didn't do it. His lawyers claim that police investigators either botched or deliberately tampered with ballistics and crime scene evidence. That's a stretch that almost certainly won't go very far.

So it comes down to this: Is Williams worth more to society alive than dead? That's the issue and the sole issue that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger must grapple with in deciding whether to grant Williams clemency. On the surface, the odds that the governor will let Williams live aren't good. California's one of 14 states where governors have sole authority to commute a condemned killer's sentence, but that would buck precedent. In the nearly four decades since Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a brain-damaged death row inmate, no California governor has waived the death sentence. And Reagan took action only because the latest scientific test to determine brain damage was not available at the time of the condemned killer's trial.

Schwarzenegger has flatly refused to grant clemency to two other condemned murderers. Both times he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes. But Tookie is not just another model prisoner. The co-founder of the Crips street gang, his story reads like a gory tale of gang violence, mayhem and destruction, yet it also reads like a saintly tale of spiritual renewal, public service and human achievement. His radical, life-affirming turnabout has made him a near universal symbol of hope that even the most hardened, bitter and incorrigible street thug can find salvation. A very much alive Williams can continue to send the message of hope and redemption to thousands of other violence-prone young men who wreak havoc on poor black communities.

Governors have intervened to commute sentences when it does serve the public good. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of virtually all condemned killers before departing office in 2003. Schwarzenegger, unlike former Governor Gray Davis, has also shown flexibility when it comes to prisoner issues. He has approved paroles for convicted murderers who had shown by word and deed that hard work and a clean record count. Playing hardball now with prisoners who have turned their lives around would be a bad public policy shift. Further, clemency is not the same as freedom. Williams will likely spend the rest of his days in prison. That effectively eliminates the remote possibility that he could ever pose a threat to anyone on the streets.

The Williams case is unique. If Schwarzenegger grants him clemency, it won't set a frightening precedent that other condemned killers will cavalierly be let off the hook. It will simply be recognition that a prisoner who has shown that he can be a model and productive citizen will not be denied a second chance to do even more good for society. Schwarzenegger should give Williams that second chance.

GORDON: Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a Los Angeles-based author and political analyst. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson