Schwarzenegger Clemency Denial Called Politically Safe

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 13 -- In the end, there was outrage from some quarters and a sense of justice from others -- but little surprise.

Political strategists on both sides of the death penalty debate said Tuesday that whatever California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's view on capital punishment, he took the politically safe road by denying clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams. Williams, co-founder of the Crips gang, was executed at San Quentin State Prison early Tuesday.

"Even if you assume he made the decision without political motivations, the political impact or ramifications certainly worked in his favor," said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist in California. "All those swing voters who supported him during the recall election support the death penalty."

Schwarzenegger, who faces a reelection bid next year, has been on shaky political ground, having had all of the initiatives he was pushing defeated in a special election last month. That defeat was compounded two weeks ago when he incensed his Republican base by appointing a Democrat -- a staff member of former governor Gray Davis, no less -- as his chief of staff. Political insiders said that some Republicans are so outraged by the appointment that they are threatening to field an opponent in the Republican primary.

So while Williams, who was convicted of killing four people in two robberies in 1979, may have sparked a campaign for mercy because of his repudiation of the gang life, the pleas on his behalf by religious leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Hollywood stars such as Jamie Foxx were no match, political experts say, for those of swing voters -- whom Schwarzenegger most wants to please.

"Let's face it, he is a first-term governor who wants a second term. He is going to make decisions that appeal to those who got him into office and those who could return him to office," Bruce S. Gordon, president of the NAACP, told reporters after the governor announced his decision. Gordon supported clemency for Williams.

A spokeswoman for the governor said he had explained the reasons for denying clemency in a statement released Monday. It read in part: "After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency. The facts do not justify overturning the jury's verdict or the decisions of the courts."

Polls have consistently shown that most California voters back capital punishment, and neither Democrat who has announced plans to challenge Schwarzenegger spoke in favor of clemency. State Controller Steve Westly issued a statement supporting the governor's decision, and State Treasurer Phil Angelides remained silent.

No California governor has granted a clemency petition since 1967, when Ronald Reagan commuted the death sentence of a mentally ill man to life in prison.

Schwarzenegger had denied two previous clemency requests from death row inmates, but his statement denying mercy to Williams was an unusually strong rebuke.

Unlike his predecessors, the governor, in a five-page statement, did not detail the mitigating and aggravating factors in the request. Rather, it seemed to allude to the letters he received from law enforcement officials urging him not to grant clemency. He rebuked Williams for maintaining his innocence and derided Williams's claims that he had redeemed himself on death row. He even criticized the books Williams wrote about avoiding gangs and staying out of prison. "The continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams' message," he wrote.

Schnur, who was a press secretary to Gov. Pete Wilson, called Schwarzenegger's statement "very unusual." He said that when Wilson denied his most high-profile clemency petition, that of Robert Alton Harris, a two-time killer who was executed in 1992, the governor read his decision to reporters "and the reporters didn't know what he decided until the end."

Williams, 51, had maintained his innocence in the four shotgun murders that took place within two weeks in 1979. But he had based his clemency petition on his transformation while behind bars.

In an interview at San Quentin prison last month, he said the plea for mercy was separate from his legal appeals. The clemency petition, Williams said, was about showing him as a person with "redemptive value" and "worth to society." He never said what he expected Schwarzenegger's decision to be, but he said he had learned to hope.

"I'm someone who never had any dreams while I was growing up," he said. "But since I've undergone this personal, spiritual transformation over the years -- and it is still in process -- I've understood what a simple human being is capable of achieving through education and study and thought."

Williams was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m. Pacific time after what witnesses said was an unusually long process. It took 12 minutes for a technician to find a vein in his left arm, which frustrated Williams to the point that he asked if he could help.

While the death penalty opponents who attended vigils at San Quentin for Williams may not have been likely Schwarzenegger voters anyway, many said the governor's decision spurred them to work against his reelection.

Barbara Cottman Becnel, who wrote children's books with Williams and became an ardent supporter, went further. "We are not going to forget," she said. "I am a woman on a mission. I am going to prove that Stan was innocent and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a cold-blooded murderer."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company