Lawyers and religious figures on Monday launched what is expected to be a vigorous battle to save the life of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the reputed co-founder of the Crips street gang, after a judge set Dec. 13 as his execution date.
Because he has lost all his appeals, it appears that only a grant of clemency from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could save Williams, 51, convicted 24 years ago of four Los Angeles murders -- the shootings of Albert Owens, who was killed in the robbery of a 7-Eleven store on Feb. 27, 1979, and of motel owners Yen-I Yang and Thsai-Shaic Yang and their daughter, Yee Chen Lin, at the Brookhaven Motel on South Vermont Avenue 12 days later.
No California governor since Ronald Reagan has granted clemency in a death penalty case.
But a coalition of religious leaders and opponents of the death penalty argue that Williams' case is exceptional. Over the last decade, he has published several children's books urging disadvantaged youths to avoid gangs and violence. He has been nominated for a Nobel Prize and last year was the subject of a favorable television movie "Redemption: The Stan 'Tookie' Williams Story."
Williams has "spent his life in jail ... turning people away from crime, turning them away from deeds that tear at the fabric of society," said Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills.
"This man has been rehabilitated. We are asking the governor to commute his sentence.... He is a model of humanity, especially for the black man."
But Lora Owens, the stepmother of Albert Owens, said the execution should go forward. She said Williams has not accepted responsibility for his murders and has done nothing to redeem himself.
"To be redeemed means to accept responsibility or assume responsibility and not use it as a means of getting out of just punishment," Owens said.
"He chose to be judge, jury and executioner in a matter of seconds, and yet it has taken years for him to come to justice," she said.
Asked whether she was convinced that Williams murdered her stepson, Owens said: "From the facts given to me, I have no doubts." Then she added, "I was not the one who convicted him; I am not the one who sentenced him; I am trying to keep the memory of Albert alive because he is the one who was done wrong."
Owens was working at the 7-Eleven store, which Williams and three others robbed of $120, according to court records.
Williams has denied committing the four killings. On Monday, Verna Wefald, his current appellate attorney, said, "The evidence against him is very weak," adding that it was based on unreliable testimony from "informants and longtime con men." She said the defense is "continuing to explore" options.
Alfred Coward, an immunized government witness, testified at trial that he, Williams, and two other men smoked cigarettes laced with PCP before the robbery. Coward testified that Williams shot out the store's television monitor before shooting Owens in the head.
Four witnesses provided testimony identifying Williams as the perpetrator of the Yang killings, according to court records.
On Monday, Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders rejected a request by defense attorneys to delay the execution date to Dec. 22 to give them more time to prepare their clemency papers, which are due Nov. 8.
"This case has taken over 24 years to get to this point," Pounders said. "That is a long delay in itself, and I would hate to add to that delay."
Neither state nor local officials would comment on the looming clemency battle, but they are expected to argue that Williams has never formally accepted responsibility for his crimes.
In California and the 36 other states that have the death penalty, an individual facing execution has a right to apply to the governor for clemency, but there are virtually no rules on how to respond. In California and most other states, the governor has complete discretion.
Since becoming governor, Schwarzenegger has rejected two clemency requests from death row inmates -- Donald Beardslee, who was executed early this year, and Kevin Cooper, who won a last-minute reprieve from a federal appeals court last year. Cooper's appeals are pending.
Earlier this month, Andrea Hoch, the governor's legal affairs secretary, sent a letter informing attorneys involved in the case that materials submitted to the governor's office regarding clemency would be sent to the Board of Parole Hearings "as a matter of course." Hoch also said the governor may call for a hearing on the clemency request.
In the last detailed ruling on the case, in September 2002, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Williams' death sentence but suggested, in a rare move, that then-Gov. Gray Davis consider commuting the sentence because of Williams' "laudable" anti-gang efforts while in prison. Davis did not commute the sentence.