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Nobel Nominee Doesn't Belong in Death Chamber

The former L.A. gangster could be a force for good.

September 19, 2002|LEWIS YABLONSKY | Lewis Yablonsky is emeritus professor of criminology at Cal State Northridge. His most recent book is "Juvenile Delinquency into the 21st Century" (Wadsworth Press, 2000). E-mail: expertwitness@

A federal appeals court recently upheld the death penalty for convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who has been on San Quentin's death row for 20 years. But in a unique move, the court suggested that Gov. Gray Davis consider commuting the sentence because of Williams' "laudable" anti-gang efforts while in prison, which led to his being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

Williams, 48, is a legendary figure in the world of L.A. gangsters. The 400 gangsters who convened in a hotel ballroom for a peace meeting in 1993 cheered him when he addressed them through a videotaped message from San Quentin, condemning violence and urging a treaty.

Williams has totally changed his attitude about gang violence and has developed some valuable insights into its insanity.

In interviewing more than 5,000 gangsters over many years, I have been stymied by this question: Why do young black men, most of whom come from dysfunctional families living in poverty, constantly attempt--with too-frequent success--to kill one another?

Williams is the only person I know of--gangster or criminologist--who has come up with any kind of articulate insight into black-on-black gang violence. I quoted his answer in my book "Gangsters":

"I believe the core of it is an embedded sense of self-hate. What I mean by that is, an individual who has been spoon-fed so many derogatory images of his race will, after a period of time, start to believe those images. The images I'm talking about are stereotypes that depict the majority of blacks as being buffoons, functional illiterates, violent and promiscuous, welfare recipients, indolent criminals.... Unfortunately, too many black people have been brainwashed into believing these stereotypes.... So you end up lashing out at the individuals [other gang members] that you consider to be part of those stereotypes. In desperation, you're trying to obliterate that negative image to rid yourself of this self-hate monster that subconsciously stalks you."

Based on his apparent rehabilitation and insights into the gang problem after his years on the streets and then on death row, Williams has something positive to offer criminology and society. He would remain in prison and could be a positive force and influence on young gangsters in the prison community if his sentence was commuted to life without parole.

There is considerable evidence that lifers like Williams often adjust peacefully and are a positive influence in their prison community. They tend to become more contemplative and in many cases humanistic. In most cases they are a stabilizing force in the prison community. They usually do not participate in prison gangs but rather develop their intellectual abilities in their pursuit of knowledge. They also tend to have remorse for their past criminal behavior, and many make an effort to positively influence younger convicts who will be paroled.

If Williams received a life sentence, he would be an ideal candidate for possible work alongside about 100 other California prison "lifers" who are now acting as "experience therapists." It would give him an opportunity to give something back to society.

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