No Special Break for Tookie

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, December 2, 2005

Big-time Hollywood stars, including Jamie Foxx, Snoop Dogg and Danny Glover, are leading a high-profile campaign to persuade another big-time Hollywood star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to save the life of a convicted murderer on California's death row named Stanley Tookie Williams. Sorry, but I can't join the glitterati in showing the love.

Williams's case is about the power of redemption, his supporters say, but I think it's more about the power of celebrity. The state shouldn't execute Williams, but only because the state shouldn't execute anybody -- the death penalty is a barbaric anachronism that should have been eliminated long ago, as far as I'm concerned. But it can't be right to save Williams just because he's a famous desperado (or former desperado) with famous friends, and then blithely go back to snuffing out the lives of other criminals who lack his talent for public relations.

Tookie Williams, scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 13, is famous because he was a co-founder of the Crips -- the Los Angeles street gang whose epic war with a rival gang, the Bloods, is one of the founding legends of the "gangsta" strain of hip-hop culture.

Snoop Dogg was briefly a Crip before discovering it was much more lucrative, and much less dangerous, to recite clever couplets about nihilistic violence than to actually participate in turf battles, shootouts and beat-downs.

"Now tell me, what's my [expletive] name?" Snoop boasted on one of his early songs. "Serial Killa!" the chorus shouted in response. But it was all make-believe for Snoop -- these days, you can see him in a television commercial playing golf with Lee Iacocca. The vast majority of his fans understood all along his music was just artifice, and I'm not ready to hold the artist responsible for the relative few who took all his pretend violence and misogyny seriously.

But Williams is a different story: The bullets in his gat were real. He was convicted of the 1979 murders of four people in two separate robberies -- convenience store worker Albert Owens, 26; and motel owners Yen-I Yang, 76; Tsai-Shai Yang, 63; and their daughter Yee-Chen Lin, 43. Williams has been on death row since 1981; that he has consistently maintained his innocence of all four killings hardly makes him unique. There's no dramatic new DNA evidence or anything like that to cast doubt on his guilt.

What does make him special, according to his supporters, is that he has been so lavishly repentant about the culture of violence he helped create.

Since about 10 years ago, Williams has been apologizing for his role in founding the Crips -- in recorded messages meant to be heard by youth groups, and in a series of children's books. A longtime supporter maintains a Web site where Williams, using the overly flowery language of a jailhouse autodidact, urges young people to stay away from gangs. True believers have even suggested him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2004 actor Foxx starred as Tookie Williams in a made-for-TV movie, "Redemption," that sought to portray his behind-bars transformation from gangster to Gandhi. In interviews, Foxx has said he is convinced that Williams's metamorphosis is genuine.

But Williams's time is running out. This week the California Supreme Court rejected a final appeal to reopen his case, and intervention by the federal courts is considered unlikely. Williams's supporters are asking Schwarzenegger to use his power as governor to intervene and commute Williams's death sentence to life without parole. The governor has agreed to consider Williams's case.

Of course, there are hundreds of other men on death row who repent of their crimes and would appreciate a little executive clemency, but they don't have movie stars pleading their cases. Oh, and also lacking a publicity machine are the four people Williams was convicted of killing.

For me, this case just reinforces my belief that there is no way the death penalty can be fairly applied. Among the ranks of the condemned are few genuinely innocent men -- although one is too many. But death row is brimming with genuinely repentant men, not because some divine revelation has hit them but simply because they have grown older.

Tookie Williams is 51; his body has softened, his rage dissipated. The state of California will not be killing the same man it sentenced to death 24 years ago. But don't buy the argument that he's a special case, because he's not.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company