first published in Mesh Magazine #12, November/December 2005
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, photographer unknown
SPARING THE CRIPS FOUNDER
by Matt Gonzalez
IN 1974 STANLEY “TOOKIE” “WILLIAMS encountered a body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger outside a Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach who complimented him on his physique. At the time Williams’ arms measured 19 inches and they looked good enough to impress the future seven-time Mr. Olympia. Williams took pride in the passing remark Schwarzenegger made – enough so to include it in his memoir written thirty years later, Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir.
Little did Williams know that the man who took note of the size of his arms would one day be the Governor of California and empowered under Article V Section 8 of the State’s Constitution to make a clemency decision about whether to spare Williams from the death penalty.
Tookie Williams is notorious for having founded, along with Raymond Lee Washington, the Crips street gang in Los Angeles in 1971. The Crips grew to be a criminal enterprise that many credit for the exploding violence in urban America over the last four decades.
Williams was sentenced to death for the 1979 murder of Albert Owens, which occurred during a robbery of a 7-Eleven, and for the murders two weeks later of Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang, and their daughter, Ye Chen Lin, during a motel robbery. The crimes were particularly cruel. Owens was shot twice in the back of the head, execution style, and the Yang family was killed by close range shotgun blasts.
But founding a street gang and being on death row are not the only things for which Williams is known. Increasingly, he is known for his activities since going to prison in 1981. In 1996, after nearly 7 straight years in solitary confinement — spent largely in self-reflection — Williams repudiated the gang life by issuing a public apology and began working to find ways to improve himself. And although he continues to deny any involvement in the 1979 murders that sent him to prison, Williams has acknowledged the devastating consequences that his founding of the Crips has caused for so many others.
Williams has published impressive written works, including nine children’s books written with Barbara Becnel, which address crime, gang issues, and how to build self-esteem. No one has made a credible claim that Williams’ “conversion” is not genuine.
Since he began his efforts, Williams has received over 50,000 e-mails from young people and others, including many law enforcement officials, acknowledging that his writings have saved lives and helped to steer young people away from gang activity. In 2000, Williams was first nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by a member of the Swiss Parliament who recognized his many contributions to ending gang violence. Other nominations for the prize have since followed.
I oppose the death penalty on moral grounds. But even for those who believe that it is justified, redemption must play some role. Executing Tookie Williams today has virtually nothing to do with punishing the Tookie Williams of 1979, even if it were shown that he committed the murders for which he has been sentenced. Would anyone suggest that one man should be killed for the crimes of another? Then what should a society do when that man has so transformed himself that he no longer resembles the one we want to punish?
Williams’ appellate attorneys have raised a number of important issues during his unsuccessful appeals, including one related to the improper conduct of the prosecutor during jury selection. Nine justices on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal thought these issues were important enough that the entire Circuit should sit to hear the case together, in what is know as an en banc hearing. Unfortunately, those judges were outnumbered.
Amazingly, the prosecutor in Williams’ case, Robert Martin, has twice been publicly castigated by the California Supreme Court for using peremptory jury challenges in a racially discriminatory manner in violation of the well-settled doctrine of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). Martin’s conduct was so egregious that the second time the California Supreme Court censured him, Justice Stanley Mosk wrote in an opinion concurring with the majority: “Only a few months earlier, this court attempted to teach this same prosecutor that invidious discrimination was unacceptable when we reversed a judgment of death because of similar improper conduct on his part. He failed — or refused — to learn his lesson. The result is another reversal — and another costly burden on the administration of justice.”
In Williams’ case, prosecutor Martin appears to have again engaged in the same discriminatory conduct. He struck all three prospective African-American jurors from the panel without giving any explanation.
Unfortunately, Williams’ trial attorney, inexplicably, failed to object to this apparent racially motivated action. As a result, Williams was convicted and sentenced to death by an all white jury, and the courts have been reluctant to discuss whether William’s attorney’s errors rise to a finding of “ineffective counsel.” Surprisingly, the Federal Courts also concluded Williams failed to make the showing necessary to warrant a further inquiry concerning the elimination of all prospective African-American jurors from the panel. While it is true that the striking of a single black juror alone would not rise to the Batson case level, striking every black juror as in Williams’ case would certainly sound alarms — particularly in a case where the defendant is black and where the prosecutor has a documented history of this brand of improper conduct.
On June 20 and 21, 2005, I participated in public readings from Williams’ memoir. These readings, held in Berkeley and San Francisco with Barbara Becnel, were held to help raise awareness of Williams’ case, prison story, and impending fate. On both occasions I read passages from Williams’ memoir that address racism and his conversion to a law-abiding life. I believe Tookie Williams’s conversion is real – and I encourage others to read his book and hear his words themselves.
Williams is scheduled to be executed on December 13, 2005.
Photo of rapper Snoop Dogg holding a polaroid of himself with Stanley Tookie Williams, December 2005.