Monday, December 12, 2005

On Tookie Williams

Since convicted killer Stanley "Tookie" Williams is slated for execution tonight at midnight, today has (rightfully) become a day for discussion of the death penalty, and I thought I'd add my two cents.

First of all, I think we need to clarify exactly what Mr. Williams has been sentenced to death for. He committed murders so heinous that a jury sentenced him to death under California law, and none of his appeals got him any reprieve. Now, you may or may not agree with that law. But no one is disputing that Mr. Williams was duly convicted of murder. And we should also clarify that Mr. Williams was not sentenced to death for any of the following:
  • Being a "bad guy"
  • Starting the Crips gang, which has killed many, committed much mayhem, ruined lives, etc.
  • Failure to write children's books while younger
Now it is being argued that Mr. Williams should be granted clemency and his sentence should be commuted to life in prison. And these arguments seem to be based on one or more of the following premises:
  • The death penalty is morally wrong for (insert reason here).
  • Governor Schwarzenegger has the power to commute the sentence.
  • Mr. Williams has written children's books and become a better person since his incarceration.
The first of those premises is debatable. However, this is a debate that has already taken place in California, and the other side won. True, it should be an ongoing debate; but it is the legislature's ongoing debate. People should think about the death penalty long and hard before deciding whether or not to support it, and this is a good occasion on which to think about it; but at this point, there is nothing that can be done about it in the time frame allotted. Mr. Williams was sentenced to die under existing law. This has been the law for many, many years, and if you are only now jumping on the anti-execution bandwagon just because it's "Tookie" that's slated for execution (and not out of any particular new or ongoing moral conviction that the death penalty is wrong), I have no respect for your view.

That leads us to the next premise: that because Gov. Schwarzenegger has the power to commute the sentence, he ought to do so. Unfortunately, having power does not equate to an obligation to use it. Clemency is one of the checks and balances that the executive branch has over the legislative branch. It should be exercised when the justice system has erred. To assert that Governor Schwarzenegger ought to grant clemency is to assert that the justice system has made a mistake, through the trial and all its appeals. Now, if you happen to believe that is the case, then you should be making that argument. But if you don't believe that a miscarriage of justice occurred in the original conviction, then you have no business asserting that Gov. Schwarzenegger ought to grant clemency.

And now we have the third premise: that Mr. Williams deserves life in prison instead of death because he has become a better person and recanted some of his former views. While I am thrilled that Mr. Williams has done so, and while I genuinely hope that his "conversion" is sincere, I would note that Mr. Williams was not convicted on the basis of what kind of person he is or the views he previously held on gang violence. He was convicted and given the death penalty because of the murders he committed. He has not un-committed those murders; he cannot. And he has not even expressed remorse for those murders. Why, then, ought he to be un-sentenced for them?

Mr. Williams' sentence was for the murders he committed. That he has become a better person is admirable. I certainly hope it earns him "brownie points" in Heaven, years off of Purgatory, good karma, or what have you. But it does not un-do what he has done or make the tiniest bit of restitution, and so it does not abrogate his responsibility to pay for his crimes the price the law and the system has required of him: his life. We would do well to remember that as ironic as it is for a "good person" to be executed, it is not outside the proper bounds of justice.