The Talking Dog

December 12, 2005, What a waste

In a few hours from now (about 11 30 pm in New York), Stanley "Tookie" Williams will be put to death by lethal injection at San Quentin prison, his last-ditch efforts at a stay of execution from the courts or from California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger failing.

Williams is alleged to have murdered four people in the Los Angeles area over 20 years ago; he was also alleged to be a founding member of the notorious Crips gang. In prison, he has been a model citizen, among other things, writing children's books aimed at dissuading youths from gang violence.

We loves our death penalty here in America; we recently executed our one thousandth prisoner since 1976; only China, Iran and Indonesia have executed more prisoners. I'm sure most Americans are just delighted to be in the company of those three great nations-- the pinnacles of the kinds of values we hold dear. Of course, since 1976, we have also had over 600,000 homicides, proving the futility of a death penalty that doesn't particularly deter crime in any way, though it is widely believed to be administered unfairly (largely because it is administered unfairly). The one good thing you could say about the death penalty (aside from its popularity, and that does count for something in a democracy... though universal health care and a decent minimum wage are damned popular, and you won't see those anytime soon) is that it presumably saves states money, by ending a prisoner's life before spending the cost of warehousing them for decades. But... counting the cost of the endless appeals, the reality is, the death penalty ends up costing more in many cases than warehousing the prisoner for life. Without, of course, the possible discovery of later innocence.

Schwarzenegger's denial of clemency should have been expected; it reflects the same political cowardice that he showed in vetoing the gay marriage bill. Arnold needs some political support somewhere, so if acting like a hard-ass (and against the principles he intimated he stood for during his campaign) surprises some people, maybe it shouldn't... after all, there's an election next year, isn't there?

Williams' case presents a number of difficulties. Williams always maintained his own innocence; nothing surprising there. Because that will make it too easy, we'll just have to play this out. In my view, a lifetime of incarceration in (an overcrowded) California prison is probably a nastier punishment than execution. But as a penological matter, it sends a message that there may not be much point in behaving well in prison: it won't get you jack (to be fair, Williams' situation is by no means run of the mill.) But... it sends a message.

it won't bring Williams' victims' back, certainly. Perhaps it will make the victims' families feel better, for a time. Or not. Only they can know for sure. But once again, when, in our name, the state engages in barbarity in the interest of either punishing or deterring barbarity, and does so in a way that is by all accounts, grossly unfair (and let's just stick to Black men in Los Angeles; recall a fellow who brutally murdered two people around 11 years ago, but, unlike Williams, was in a position to hire a top-notch legal team and hence buy himself reasonable doubt, and is out playing golf somewhere, while Williams awaits death by lethal injection)... is that really what we want?

Trick question. I realize that this is the system that Americans do want. It just happens to have an... unattractive side from time to time.


'Williams is alleged to have murdered four people in the Los Angeles area over 20 years ago'

No - he was convicted

Posted by ICallMasICM at December 13, 2005 7:49 AM

ICallMasICM stole my line. I agree with TD that the DP is not always administered fairly, but I find that argument unpersuasive in this case.

Posted by Lawrence at December 13, 2005 12:47 PM

Did anything stop to think about what the 300 kids who bought the books are going to do now? Ironically, probably turn to the streets.

Posted by Just Wondering at December 13, 2005 1:04 PM

Oh, I know he was convicted (God, I hope so... otherwise California has some serious explaining to do...)

I use "allege" because Mr. Williams went to his death insisting that he didn't do the crimes. As none of us were witnesses to it, the best we can do is view this second or third-hand. Most ironically, his insistence on maintaining his innocence was interpreted as a showing of lack of remorse, which militated against his
clemency. Frankly, I have no idea if Williams himself was rightly or wrongly convicted; I will concede that what I have heard from Williams himself on the subject struck me as most unpersuasive. I'm trying to say that for my intellectual exercise, I'm assuming he's guilty. (It's just too easy to oppose the death penalty if you believe everyone executed isn't guilty; mistakes are made, but thankfully, not that many.)

There's another unfairness angle here: should someone get clemency because they have made themselves famous and have lined up celebrity champions, whereas some obscure schmuck gets executed. Looked at that way, I have less of a problem executing Mr. Williams (except of course that the guy denying clemency wouldn't be governor but for his own celebrity status... but there you have it.)

We have an aspirational issue. The death penalty is something that has popular appeal here (though a lot less in recent years, as the aforementioned "mistakes" mount up, and we seem to have better forensic technologies.) Certainly, the elites in Europe have highjacked the issue from voters there, which are sizable majorities in at least some countries.

There's the issue I raised: do you want to give other prisoners something to hope for and aspire to, even serving hard time or life... prison officials will tell you that it makes managing a prison much easier if you can do that.

I've described my position on capital punishment as "operationally opposed." We don't impose it fairly as a general matter; the criteria for its imposition is, thankfully, no longer so much the race of the perp (though it IS frequently imposed based on the race of the vic). But mostly, it's about the ability to afford decent defense counsel. Yes, having money gets you advantages in everything else in our society.

It's just that we were supposed to be "equal under law." And clearly, that just ain't necessarily so...

Posted by the talking dog at December 13, 2005 1:30 PM

Heh. Good one, Just Wondering.

It also appears that Tookie's prison record didn't exactly comport with that of a "model citizen."

Posted by Lawrence at December 13, 2005 1:34 PM

Fair enough, TD. (just noticing your comment above.)

Posted by Lawrence at December 13, 2005 1:37 PM

Ahhnold was not only "successful" in killing Tookie, was also successful in killing his political career.

Byee Ahhnold and "Don't come back..."

Posted by Edo at December 21, 2005 10:57 PM