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NAACP Calls for Sparing Williams

New chief jets across the state seeking to keep the inmate alive. Critics see a bid to revive the group.

December 07, 2005|Louis Sahagun and Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writers

The new president of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization crisscrossed the state by jet Tuesday in a crusade to keep Stanley Tookie Williams, a co-founder of the vicious Crips gang, from execution next week.

The NAACP is hoping to call more attention to Williams' help in rehabilitating gang members -- and, critics say, trying to rejuvenate an aging organization by linking it to a cause embraced by hip-hop stars.

In his first public appearance in California since taking charge of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in August, Bruce S. Gordon darted from Los Angeles to San Diego and from Sacramento to San Francisco to pressure Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute the death sentence of Williams -- convicted of killing four people -- to life in prison.

In recent weeks, many politicians, organizations and celebrities, including rap star Snoop Dogg, have called for the governor to stop the execution. Williams is already serving a life sentence; the only question is whether he will be put to death.

The inmate, who maintains his innocence and has won international attention for his children's books denouncing gang violence, is scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday unless the governor commutes the sentence.

In a news conference at Los Angeles City Hall, Gordon said, "If we believe prison is intended for reform and we believe the criminal justice system makes mistakes," then Williams should be spared.

The prisoner, 51, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981 for the 1979 shotgun slaying of Albert Owens, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Whittier, and for the murders 11 days later of Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yu-Chin Yang Lin at their family-run motel in Los Angeles.

Schwarzenegger has said he faces the clemency decision with dread.

"It is one of the most difficult decisions that any governor faces, and he is preparing for it in the serious manner that it deserves and merits," spokeswoman Margita Thompson said.

Legal scholar Alfred Blumstein of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University said: "This is a case in which the governor could do well by providing clemency. Here's a guy who is producing a social benefit."

That kind of talk "irritates the hell out of me," said social critic Joe R. Hicks, vice president of Community Advocate and former director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"There are lots of issues conflicting black people all over the country, and to have this be one of the first official acts of the NAACP's new president is frankly depressing," he said. "That this man chose to take up the cause of a thug who killed four people and then was found guilty by four courts is outrageous."

Although critics say Williams is the wrong choice to be an iconic figure, the NAACP's Gordon said of a meeting with the convict, "As I looked in Stan's eyes, I think I spoke to an honest man.

"Williams is our new partner. He is our secret weapon in the fight to help young African Americans reject gangs. Williams will have a powerful impact not just in Los Angeles, not just in California, but throughout the nation," said Gordon, who spoke for 2 1/2 hours with the inmate Saturday at San Quentin.

Hicks sees the NAACP's push for clemency for Williams as a recognition of its history -- the organization has long opposed the death penalty -- but also as an attempt to regain relevance.

"The NAACP is graying," he said, "and I can only think this is a very misguided attempt to connect with black youths in an urban culture attracted to hip-hop and a gangster element that finds Tookie Williams oddly appealing."

The NAACP has been struggling for years to recapture some of its glory days, when it led the civil rights movement through boycotts and peaceful protests and helped raise national awareness about the brutality of racism in the 1950s and '60s. According to a state NAACP official, the average age of a member is now more than 50.

Beyond the celebrity aspects, the Williams case is related to concerns about the large numbers of African Americans in prison, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.

"One out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 35 are now or have been in jail or prison, or on parole or probation," he said. "That's had a devastating impact on urban communities."

Gordon said that more than 100,000 people from around the world have signed an NAACP clemency petition, with many -- including gang members from as far away as Ireland -- writing about how Williams has influenced their lives.

Despite his "clear culpability of being a violent individual and a criminal," Gordon said, "look at the process he went through; look at what he's been able to accomplish from behind bars."

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Sahagun and Richardson reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer John M. Glionna in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Death row

California racial/ethnic percentages:

Death row inmates (total 648 as of Oct. 1)

White: 39%

Black: 36%

Latino: 20%

Asian: 3%

Native American: 2%

--

Statewide population

White: 44%

Latino: 35%

Asian: 12%

Black: 6%

Other: 3%

--

Executions in state since 1976

White: 8

Native American: 1

Asian : 1

Black : 1

Total: 11

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Sources: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Census Bureau: 2004 American Community Survey, Death Penalty Information Center

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