Governor Dreading Decision on Life or Death
by Mark Martin
It was 1976, according to Stanley Tookie Williams, when he met a young Austrian bodybuilder along the Venice Beach boardwalk, then the epicenter of the Southern California muscle culture.
Williams, who was a hard-bodied weight lifter as well as a notorious gang member, recounted the brief encounter in a book published last year: Arnold Schwarzenegger was so impressed with Williams' physique, he noted that Williams' biceps were as big as thighs.
Nearly 30 years later, the two men are again crossing paths.
With the world watching, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must decide in the next few weeks whether Williams will live or die.
Williams, 51, the co-founder of the Crips gang and a four-time murderer who has become an anti-gang crusader and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is scheduled to be executed at San Quentin State Prison on Dec. 13.
With court appeals nearly exhausted, Williams has pointed to the children's books and gang-peace initiatives he has produced from behind prison walls as proof he is a reformed man and worthy of clemency. Sunday was the last day of a week-long "Tookie Williams Teach-in" that included a rally outside the gates of San Quentin on Saturday featuring the rapper Snoop Dogg.
Prosecutors argue that a man responsible for four shotgun murders who was involved in nearly a dozen violent incidents in his first decade in prison -- before he changed his ways -- deserves the sentence a jury recommended.
After a year of plummeting popularity and squabbles with Democrats and labor unions over sometimes-arcane ideas about ways to change government, Schwarzenegger now turns to a more basic and far more gut-wrenching task.
He must contemplate crime and punishment, redemption and race. Williams is asking that Schwarzenegger buck a strong national trend that has turned clemency based on atonement into a political third rail.
Just a few weeks after a special election that marked the low point of Schwarzenegger's tenure as governor, he is faced with a decision he admitted this week that he dreads.
"I know he will agonize over this," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who has worked with Schwarzenegger on prison reform and is advocating clemency for Williams, with whom she met earlier this month. "I know this governor believes in redemption. He has approached crime and punishment with a little more thought than just 'hang 'em high.' The question is whether he will take the political risk."
Clemency is a unique and absolute power bestowed upon the executive branch; governors and presidents have virtually unchecked authority to overturn a death sentence or even set someone free. Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted a death sentence in his state in 1999, he said, because Pope John Paul II asked him to. "It's almost a divine power," noted Austin Sarat, a professor of law and political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts and author of a book on clemency called "Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution."
Clemency has become extremely rare. Sarat noted that aside from the mass Death Row commutation extended by Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2003, there had been only a dozen acts of clemency in the last decade; there were 143 such acts during the 1960s.
Ronald Reagan was the last California governor to commute a death sentence, in 1967.
Recent governors around the country have virtually abandoned the idea of "mercy-based clemency," as Sarat describes it: the idea that a condemned inmate has redeemed himself after conviction.
"There's simply no political gain in it," Sarat said. "If you grant someone clemency, who's happy? The person on death row, his family; but there's usually a whole lot more people who are unhappy."
Politicians as diverse in philosophy as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton said as governors they would not consider clemency unless there was evidence of innocence or an unfair trial.
Bush famously refused to consider pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker's conversion to Christianity in prison, and she was executed in Texas in 1998.
Williams has never admitted guilt for the crimes he was convicted of: the murders of Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang and Yee-Chen Lin during two separate robberies in 1979. His petition for clemency briefly alleges that evidence against Williams was circumstantial and that there was racial bias against Williams, who is black, in the convening of an all-white jury.
Instead, the bulk of Williams' plea making has been in the last dozen years. Included in the petition for clemency are Williams' books, his Nobel Peace Prize nomination letter, dozens of e-mails from kids, school officials and others praising his work, even a movie made about him that starred Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx.
"The question here is if you don't give clemency based on his personal redemption, based on the thousands of people he has touched, who would you give it to?" asked Jonathan Harris, a New York-based lawyer working for Williams.
Schwarzenegger has already denied clemency requests from two condemned inmates, and one of them, Donald Beardslee, was executed in January. But the governor's feelings about the death penalty are not clear-cut.
In an interview with The Chronicle's editorial board just before the Beardslee execution, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that he came from a country where capital punishment is anathema and suggested he still wrestled with the issue, which he characterized as "heavy stuff."
"I grew up with the mentality that this is an absolute no-no," he said. "And so you're dealing with that, which is very odd. I mean, very few people have that chance to live in a body with kind of two brains. Kind of like the Austrian brain and the American brain. ... They're fighting with each other all the time, you know, where I can argue with myself about those things."
That is a much less black-and-white opinion of the death penalty than many California politicians running for statewide office would admit. And without much fanfare, Schwarzenegger has shown significant differences on crime and punishment policies than the three governors who came before him.
He added the word "rehabilitation" to the name of the state's prison system, and he has quietly allowed the parole of 114 California inmates charged with violent crimes, including 23 people convicted of first-degree murder.
That record stands in stark contrast to former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who granted parole to only five inmates in his five years in office and publicly stated he did not believe that murderers deserved a second chance.
Williams' attorneys believe they may have the right governor to plead their case for a clemency based on good works.
"We know Gov. Schwarzenegger believes in rehabilitation," Harris said.
Legal experts who are familiar with Schwarzenegger's two previous decisions on clemency, however, suggest Williams has an uphill battle.
In denying clemency to Beardslee, who confessed to killing two people, and to Kevin Cooper, who killed a family of four after escaping from prison, Schwarzenegger focused extensively on the facts of the crimes and was unimpressed with a religious conversion Cooper experienced in prison, noted David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association.
LaBahn said that Williams' refusal to apologize for the crimes he was convicted of -- Williams maintains his innocence -- could weigh heavily on Schwarzenegger.
"He (Williams) has apologized for the gang lifestyle, but never directly for the crime and to the victims' families," said LaBahn, who has written to Schwarzenegger in opposition to clemency for Williams.
Political experts also suggest clemency for Williams would be a stunner. Noting that 68 percent of Californians supported the death penalty in a March 2004 Field Poll, Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, suggested that clemency "would be a big political risk for a governor probably not that interested in taking a risk right now." "He's someone who needs to be moving toward the middle right now, and this is a pretty divisive issue," DiCamillo said.
Schwarzenegger could begin reviewing the case as early as today, and an aide said Andrea Hoch, the governor's new legal affairs secretary, will lead the review. "This administration takes clemency very seriously," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director. "The governor approaches this case with no predisposed notions one way or the other."
Schwarzenegger, who was in China last week, was asked by California reporters there whether he remembered meeting Williams on Venice Beach. The governor noted that "millions of people have said they worked out with me," before going on to say he was preparing to review Williams' case.
"I dread that ... but it's part of the job," he said. © 2005 San Francisco Chronicle
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