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As Execution Date Nears, Gang Founder Stirs Debate
Still a big, bad Crip when he entered San Quentin in 1981, Williams spent six years in solitary confinement (1988 to 1994). Days in solitary moved like pond water, and Williams had time to make learning a serious pursuit. The dictionary and thesaurus were his favorite "valuable tools."
"I started with 10 words a day," he said, "writing the word and its phonetic spelling on one side of a piece of paper, and the definition on the other. Sometimes one word had a whole paragraph of synonyms and meanings. It was a revelation." By 1992, he was ready to apply all his reading to writing.
"I wanted to write a Peace Protocol for the gangs," he said, referring to a document that Crips and Bloods have used to hold a truce. "And I wanted to write children's books speaking out against gangs. I knew that once I did that, I would not retrogress. There was no going back to my despicable ways."
In 1992, Barbara Becnel, a journalist working on a story on the Crips, persuaded Williams to grant her an interview. She ended up helping him launch his writings, from the Peace Protocol to his "Tookie Speaks Out" series of nine children's books. His memoir, "Blue Rage, Black Redemption" -- adapted into an FX channel movie, "Redemption," starring Jamie Foxx -- traced their relationship from adversaries to friends and collaborators.
Williams has always said he did not commit the crimes -- that his defense was botched; the key witnesses, opportunistic liars facing hard time themselves; and the prosecutors, so intent on nailing the menacing leader of the Crips, that they ignored evidence pointing to others and away from him.
"I have never had any faith in the system -- period," he said. "I've never received justice in my entire life."
It is not the kind of contrite line his critics would want to hear. But Williams could not help himself. "I believe justice is more of a crapshoot than anything," he said. "Statistics-wise, the majority of individuals who do get justice are white and affluent. If Rodney King's beating hadn't been videotaped, the police would still be saying they never touched him. If I were affluent, I wouldn't be here right now."
The thoughts conjure up real regrets, the ones that come from remembering that he took the path of least resistance in his South Central L.A. 'hood: "drugs, crime, violence, stupidity."
As a middle-schooler, "I really only wanted to be left alone," he said. But he was puny and ripe for being picked on. "I always hated bullies," he said. So he blew himself up like a cartoon superhero -- 300 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame -- and wore an afro like Superfly's.
Williams co-founded the Crips with his friend Raymond Washington in 1971, when they were 17. The original name, he said, was the Cribs, but it was misspelled during an alcohol binge and "Crips" stuck.
In 1979, Williams was arrested in the slaying of Albert Lewis Owens, a 26-year-old clerk at a 7-Eleven store in Pico Rivera who was shot in the head while lying face down on the floor during a robbery. Police said that a few weeks later he killed Tsai-Shai Yang, 63; her husband, Yen-I Yang, 76; and their daughter, Yee-Chen Lin, 43, during a holdup at their motel in South Los Angeles.
A shotgun shell found at the crime scene was said to be from a gun purchased by Williams five years earlier, which was under the bed of two associates under investigation for killing their business partner. Their murder charges were dropped after they testified that Williams had confessed to them. Other witnesses included a longtime felon who was placed in a nearby cell while Williams awaited trial.
Williams's attorney said that 20 years later, it was discovered that a Los Angeles police officer had left a copy of her client's file in the informant's cell for overnight study. Another witness, who was never called to testify, though he implicated Williams as the shooter in the 7-Eleven robbery, has recanted, the lawyer said.
Williams's clemency petition stresses his good works of the past decade or so -- his books, taught in inner-city curricula across the country; his A grade for behavior at San Quentin for the past 13 years; and his following -- the thousands of people who have written to him, the 32,000 people who signed a plea for clemency.
Williams said that he wants to keep on working -- writing. The two books he is currently writing -- an anthology of essays on politics, race, crime and punishment, and the latest in his "Tookie Speaks Out" series (this one on girl gang members) -- need attention. So do the letters he receives, sometimes 30 or 40 a day.
"The sad part," he said, with a sigh, "is that I couldn't possibly answer all of them individually." Even if he had all the time in the world, he said, "it would take forever."