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Williams Case a Question of Mercy

With legal claims rejected, the killer's redemption may be key in clemency decision.

December 08, 2005|Jenifer Warren and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spares Stanley Tookie Williams from his scheduled execution at San Quentin State Prison next week, he will almost certainly be forced to anchor his decision in a rationale that has virtually disappeared from the modern clemency process: mercy.

Nationwide over the last 30 years, governors commuting death sentences have almost never cited a condemned man's redemption as a reason to save his life. Rather, they typically act because of doubts about guilt, questions surrounding trial fairness, concerns about mental illness or worries that capital punishment disproportionately targets racial minorities.

In the Williams case, legal claims have been rejected repeatedly by courts. His bid for clemency is rooted entirely in what attorneys describe as his metamorphosis behind bars, from the co-founder of the murderous Crips street gang to a peacemaker who writes children's books and preaches nonviolence.

Whether that transformation persuades Schwarzenegger to cancel Williams' death by lethal injection remains to be seen. The governor has not revealed details of his thinking on Williams, and aides would only say that he has been in daily contact with his legal team leading up to today's closed clemency hearing in the Capitol.

Although the Republican governor supports the death penalty, an advisor has said that Schwarzenegger would be open to clemency in the right case. And Schwarzenegger's views on crime and punishment are more nuanced than those of his two predecessors -- who presided over 10 executions between them -- and he has said the decision in the Williams case is one that he dreads.

In deciding the fate of two other condemned men, the governor rejected clemency, finding no evidence compelling him to act. In January, after he denied clemency for triple murderer Donald Beardslee and allowed the execution to proceed, Schwarzenegger told journalists in his native Austria that the episode marked "the hardest day" of his life.

The law, meanwhile, offers little guidance. There are no rules when it comes to executive commutations, and previous governors characterize clemency decisions as among the most challenging and emotional they faced in office. The public clamor only exacerbates the pressure.

"Clemency is an awesome responsibility," said former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who rejected bids from five men who were executed. While Schwarzenegger will clearly be "aware that the world is watching," Davis said, the task is "a very solitary decision, a matter between the governor and his conscience."

Former Gov. Pete Wilson agreed that "you don't take lightly denying life to anyone." On the other hand, he said, Californians have "expressed their approval at the ballot box of imposing the death penalty, and so I think anyone seeking clemency has a very difficult standard to meet."

On Wednesday, lawyers for Williams summarized the line of argument they would be making at today's hearing, which the governor will attend, and said they would be presenting Schwarzenegger with a letter from Williams. They declined to reveal its contents.

Beginning at 10 a.m. today, the governor will hear the presentation from Williams' attorneys and one from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Schwarzenegger's aides said he would make no comment, and they could not predict when he might make his decision.

Public support for Williams' clemency, meanwhile, has been intense among some Hollywood celebrities, world famous clergymen and teachers who use his books. Williams' lawyers say tens of thousands of people have written letters and e-mails, urging that their client be allowed to live. And during the past week, supporters have bought full-page advertisements in newspapers, including The Times, to push for clemency.

Williams' allies highlight his portfolio of accomplishment while incarcerated, which includes nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and ongoing efforts to discourage youths from joining gangs. Allowing Williams to live out his life in prison, they say, will preserve him as a force for good in society while validating the possibility of redemption in today's criminal justice system.

"Tookie Williams is the ideal candidate for clemency because his time on death row has dramatically reinforced the notion that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done," said Bryan Stevenson, an acclaimed death penalty appellate lawyer and professor at New York University Law School.

Prosecutors and survivors of Williams' victims say his good works should not carry the day. They say Williams remains a man who took four lives and helped launch a gang war that has ravaged American cities.

Williams' pursuit of forgiveness rings hollow, they add, because he has neither apologized to his victims nor agreed to participate in a debriefing with law enforcement officials, a process in which gang dropouts share what they know.

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