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.
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.
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."