As Execution Date Nears, Gang Founder Stirs Debate

Rapper Snoop Dogg leads a rally at the prison to get Williams off death row. The execution is scheduled for Dec. 13. Since his incarceration, Williams has written several anti-gang books and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rapper Snoop Dogg leads a rally at the prison to get Williams off death row. The execution is scheduled for Dec. 13. Since his incarceration, Williams has written several anti-gang books and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (By Marcio Jose Sanchez -- Associated Press)

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By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2005

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- Of all the thoughts that might rouse Stanley "Tookie" Williams in the middle of the night, his favorite are "pithies."

In case one hits, he keeps a pencil and pad and an Itty Bitty Book Light on the floor by his cot. That way he can hold on to the pithy -- a phrase or line "that just comes" to him -- and use it in one of the two books he is trying hard to finish writing before he is killed.

It seems impossible given time and circumstances. From his new quarters, cell No. 1 in the San Quentin death house, he is right by the old gas chamber, where he is scheduled to die by injection on Dec. 13. Pithies cannot compete with that.

Williams is probably the most prominent death row prisoner in the country -- co-founder of the Crips gang, convicted of killing four people in 1979 and then nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times in the past five years for his anti-gang work -- so his imminent execution also keeps him busy managing a flood of calls, letters and visits.

His death date has prompted one of the most high-profile debates on capital punishment in years. Radio talk shows, newspaper editorials, essays and school term papers are all weighing in on whether Williams should die. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed to meet Dec. 8 with Williams's lawyers, Los Angeles County prosecutors and others involved in the case to consider whether to commute Williams's sentence to life in prison. If clemency is granted, Williams will be the first condemned person in California to win a reprieve in 38 years.

Stanley
Stanley "Tookie" Williams has been at San Quentin since 1981, after being convicted of four murders.
Sitting at an old pine table in a San Quentin visiting cell the other day, Williams seemed remarkably calm and composed. "I just try to do my work," he said, shrugging bodybuilder-big shoulders that nearly burst through his denim shirt. "But being who I am, because of what I've done in my gang past, I guess I've become the subject for people to debate."

On one side are those against state killings in principle, those who believe that Williams has redeemed himself with his 10 books urging youths to stay away from gangs, and those who argue that Williams, who has always maintained his innocence, should be allowed to reexamine ballistics and other evidence that might be a basis for a new trial.

On the other side are those who say Williams should die because retributive justice -- an eye for an eye -- demands it, not to mention those who don't believe that he has actually reformed. They note that Williams has never owned up to the murders and that while he has achieved fame, his victims have all but been forgotten.

As Dec. 13 draws closer, the competing choruses are getting louder. Nearly every day, more prominent entertainers, intellectuals and political leaders step forward to speak out for Williams's life. But California law enforcement officials have launched an offensive. The Los Angeles prosecutor wrote Schwarzenegger to say Williams is "a cold-blooded killer" who helped start a violent gang that continues to terrorize the city. The state attorney general's office said Williams has had 24 years to examine evidence -- it's too late now.

A San Quentin spokesman has even suggested that Williams might still be running the Crips from death row, contradicting official prison evaluations.

"That reprobative individual is part of a system that wants me to die," Williams said. "But I'm grateful for the Keystone-esque tactics of these people. It shows they're mendacious."

At 51 years old, after nearly half his life in San Quentin, Williams bears only the broad outline of his Crips self. More gray than not, he wears round, rimless glasses, a razor-neat beard and pulled-back cornrows. When he turns around, you can see a small ponytail. His speaks softly, dishing out big words like a five-course meal.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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