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Telling His Story to Save His Life

Writer Barbara Becnel has made clemency for Stanley Williams a global cause celebre.

November 29, 2005|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

So obscure that his conviction for four murders barely made headlines, death row inmate Stanley Tookie Williams owes his notoriety as much to a determined woman who stood by him and to committed death penalty opponents as to his shift from gangster to anti-gang activist.

During a jailhouse visit in 1993 to research a book on gangs, writer Barbara Becnel discovered that Williams, who is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13, had renounced his gang past. Over the next two years, Becnel shed her doubts about the co-founder of the Crips and helped him work to persuade youths to avoid gangs.

She arranged for Williams to speak by telephone to youth and criminal justice groups, and edited his series of children's books. Death penalty opponents also took up his cause, pushing him into the limelight by nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature, prestigious nominations that are surprisingly easy to make.

Eventually Becnel negotiated a deal for the movie "Redemption," which starred Jamie Foxx as Williams.

Now Becnel is spearheading a campaign to persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute Williams' death sentence to life in prison without parole. Schwarzenegger has scheduled a closed clemency hearing for Williams for Dec. 8.

Entertainers including Foxx, Elliott Gould, Danny Glover, Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson, William Baldwin, Mike Farrell, Harry Belafonte, Edward Asner, Jackson Browne, Russell Crowe, Richard Dreyfuss, Gabriel Byrne, Snoop Dogg, Bianca Jagger, and politicians such as former state Sen. Tom Hayden, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl support clemency for Williams.

"He's probably now one of the most famous of California inmates [awaiting] execution because of all the media attention," said Alex Alonso, who studies gangs and owns the website streetgangs.com.

Currently the executive director of a nonprofit group in Richmond, Calif., in the Bay Area, Becnel, 55, downplays her role in the work Williams has done from death row. She said she is merely "the hub" to whom Williams and others bring suggestions.

A tall, striking African American with long, curly brown hair and rectangular glasses, Becnel directs a staff of 50 in a converted hospital on a litter-strewn Richmond street. "Once people come up with ideas how to help, they track me down," she said.

Becnel said she cares for Williams as a brother. Williams has described her as his "human angel" and his "intellectual sounding board."

It was Becnel who suggested that Williams go public with his change of heart by making a videotaped speech that she showed at a gang peace summit in 1993. The tape mesmerized the gang audience, Becnel said.

Even then, she wrestled with doubts about his sincerity. When Williams told her that he wanted to write children's books, a publisher said he first had to write a book about the allure of gangs. Williams turned the publisher down. "We are not that desperate," she quoted Williams as saying.

Becnel said she came to believe in him. "If it was really about him, and not the kids, he would have" written the more marketable book, she said.

Becnel spent her own money to fly to a booksellers' convention in Chicago in 1995 to try to find a publisher for the children's series.

"I was a woman on a mission," she said. "It took me two days to walk the McCormick convention center."

After Williams' first set of books was published in 1996 and his recorded apology for starting the Crips was distributed to some California schools, Becnel launched a website, www.tookie.com, where Williams could share ideas for steering kids away from gangs.

Farrell, board president of Death Penalty Focus, a group that is trying to abolish the death penalty, said he met Becnel through a mutual friend and, over lunch, discussed making a movie about Williams' transformation in prison.

Becnel was not the first person whom Farrell had met who had a strong bond to a death row prisoner.

"When somebody meets somebody in that situation, they are often intensely emotionally affected by the hideousness of the situation," Farrell said.

Around the same time, Becnel met a woman who was active in anti-violence efforts in Zurich, Switzerland, and took Williams' campaign to Europe. Zurich, like many California cities, was troubled by gangs, with Somali and other immigrant youths engaged in violence, Becnel said.

She made several trips to Zurich and eventually met the Swiss national legislator Mario Fehr, who would nominate Williams for the Nobel in 2001. Legislators and professors in certain disciplines can nominate Nobel Prize candidates.

"The Nobel Prize nominations really catapulted his name into the media," Alonso said. "That's when reporters started calling me."

Becnel fielded calls from Hollywood, eventually signing with 20th Century Fox to do a movie about Williams' gradual change in prison.

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