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The death of redemption? 

On clemency, the death penalty, and the plight of Los Angeles gangster Stan 'Tookie' Williams

We stood for an hour in silence on the sidewalk at Monterey and Chorro. We were seven strong. I held up my end of the black plastic banner proclaiming, "Abolish the Death Penalty," tugging it taut for all to see. When my arms grew tired, I switched hands. We got a lot of upturned thumbs and smiles, raised fists, and two-finger peace signs. We also saw an occasional middle finger, like the one given by a man peeling out in a cloud of smoke. There was a woman by his side; steel-jawed, her gaze averted. I wonder about those women buckled into their seat of silence. What really goes on behind the mask?

I watched the faces. Children, the homeless, and the disabled were the most curious. They were open and unguarded. Other people worked at ignoring us, walking briskly and staring into the space ahead like there's something out there more interesting than this band of folks in black holding up a sign.

I haven't always opposed the death penalty. For years I never really gave it a thought. "Dead Man Walking" (the movie) forced the issue. The book nailed it. I found out that having the death penalty actually costs more than simply locking people up for life! While that in itself is a good argument, more compelling for me is the moral one. Something about cruel and unusual punishment I learned a long time ago. Not to mention the vow against killing, but that bit the dust so far back it's hard to remember.

In 1979 there was a killing at a 7-Eleven store in Whittier. Albert Owens lay dead in a pool of blood. A couple of weeks later there were three more murders at an L.A. motel; a man, his wife, and his daughter shot down during a robbery. They were horrible and senseless acts. There were no witnesses, no fingerprints. Yet, in 1981, Stan "Tookie" Williams was locked up to await his own death at the hands of the state.

Williams was convicted on the basis of testimony from felons who got reduced sentences after their testimony. They said Williams confessed to them laughingly, in private. I don't pretend to know; I wasn't there. What I do know is that in the 24 years since Williams was locked up, he has written nine books for children, an autobiography called "Blue Rage," "Black Redemption," and "Life in Prison," honored by the American Library Association. He has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize and four times for literature. Just this year President Bush honored him with the President's Call to Service award.

Williams came up rough in the hard streets of L.A. In 1971, he and Ray Washington started the Crips, for "protection." Eight years later, Washington was murdered in the ensuing wave of blood. Williams says he has been atoning ever since.

After landing on death row, he maintained his image as a gangbanger. As a result, he was put in the hole in '93 where he underwent a transformation, described in an interview with Venice Wagner of Mother Jones (Apr/May 2001).

"It unchained my mind ... through prayers and extensive study. I had to seriously question whether I was a human or a beast. I had to undergo years and years of soul-searching and edification to battle my inner demons." He was in solitary for six years.

As a child, Williams recalls, "There was never an individual ... that I could empathize with when I was growing up. If there had been an individual like myself who had actually experienced the madness [of prison life] and then came back and said, 'Hey, look, this is not what you want to do,' I know I would have done better."

He started writing, he says, for the redemption. "... An act of atonement. Something that I could give back. Because, let's face it - myself and others in the gang life have done nothing but destroy the community."

Today Williams devotes his time to ending gang violence any way he can. He mentors schools across the country by telephone. He has authored a "Protocol for Peace," that was signed by gangs in Newark, N.J., in May 2004. The murder rate plummeted after 32 gang-related deaths the first four months of that year. Williams is credited with turning more than 150,000 lives away from gangs, according to the testimony of families and kids around the country.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering clemency. Clemency means mercy. A primary Christian virtue, it infers a faith in redemption. Despite our Judeo-Christian traditions, clemency remains all too rare. Many still doubt redemption. It has to do with paying debt , with making good . Mike Farrell, who heads up Death Penalty Focus, says Tookie Williams is a perfect example of the power to transform one's life. He has made good in the pit of death row.

The SLO branch of Death Penalty Focus (DPF) formed in 2001 under the guidance of Rev. Anne Hines of the Unitarian church. I had been to a conference in San Francisco and I had to do something. Sister Mary Pat White of the Cal Poly Newman Center joined us, along with a handful of others. Two months later, Helen Prejean spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Cal Poly. She discussed her book, "Dead Man Walking," and the movement it has invigorated. Family members of murder victims play a powerful and moving role. Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) offer compelling stories of being used by death penalty advocates who play on their tragic losses to promote their agenda. They have learned wrenchingly that more murder doesn't end the pain. Only forgiveness ends the pain.

After affiliating with Death Penalty Focus, a national organization dedicated to eliminating the death penalty, our local focus has been the monthly vigil. In the event of an execution, a more public commemorative vigil is planned. Our numbers are few but we try to bring a measure of consciousness to the community about this issue.

Should Tookie Williams be executed on Dec. 13, we will be no closer to a just and safe society. Quite the contrary; we will slide a little further back, distancing ourselves even more from the commitment to truth and justice that is the only basis for real security.

Until the moment of his death, Williams challenges us. Like we do on the sidewalk at Monterey and Chorro. If you question sanitized, state sanctioned, publicly financed murder, we invite you join us. We do not engage in debate, and converse only in response to a question. We seek to provoke thought, not defensiveness.

I am convinced the death penalty only perpetuates suffering. It has not been shown to offer any deterrent to murder. Nor is it fair, equal, or just. There are innocents on death row. In Illinois, Republican Governor Ryan did the right thing when it was proven that 13 guiltless people were waiting to die. He set them free. No doubt, many innocents have already been executed for crimes they did not commit. The weight of that is not something I want on my conscience.

I still don't know if Tookie Williams is guilty. I only know that on the first Wednesday there is nowhere I would rather be than standing up with my fellow citizens at 11 a.m., for as long as it takes.

I sometimes wonder what the point is standing there on the sidewalk holding our sign. But not for long. We are standing up. We are bearing witness. And we will bear witness each first Wednesday until this cruel and senseless practice is banished.


Susan Pyburn, who lives in San Luis Obispo, says there is a local vigil/protest planned for Dec. 12. She also suggests renting the film 'Redemption,' starring Jamie Foxx. For further info, you can reach Susan at

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