Here we are in the 21st century, yet the United States is still not fully civilized. Unlike most other industrialized countries, we still execute people in the name of the state.
To answer killing with more killing is obviously barbaric, an act of crude revenge and retribution. Capital punishment is cruel and senseless, a primitive instrument that brutalizes society by justifying killing as a means to an end.
Those who are executed, furthermore, are overwhelmingly poor people of color, often mentally ill, often represented by poorly paid, sometimes incompetent lawyers – and not necessarily guilty.
Capital punishment does not deter crime, as its vengeance-seeking advocates assert. Rather, it deters us from trying to rehabilitate rather than simply punish transgressors, from trying to cure the societal ills that lead to criminal conduct and from establishing a truly fair and equitable system of justice.
Nothing has made that clearer than the recent execution in California of Stanley Tookie Williams, a state-sanctioned killing that understandably drew widespread international attention and condemnation.
No one denies that Williams had a violent criminal past. As a poor teenager living in the black ghetto of South Los Angeles, he helped found and lead the notorious Crips street gang in 1971. There’s plenty of doubt, however, over whether he was guilty of the four 1979 murders for which he was executed. Much of the case against him was based on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of an accomplice to the robberies involved who had very good reason to put the blame on Williams.
Guilty or not, there’s also no denying that Williams was a violent presence on Death Row, so violent he spent the first half-dozen of his 24 years there in solitary confinement. But then he changed. He began speaking out and writing against the gang life he had led.
Williams co-authored eight books on the evils of gangs and violence generally and two autobiographies about his gang life and the perils of prison that are used in middle and high schools nationwide and in Britain, South Africa and other countries.
He wrote a model “peace protocol” widely used by gangs seeking peaceful co-existence and helped arrange truces between them. He often spoke via videotape and telephone to groups trying to develop ways to end gang violence. He was nominated six times for a Nobel Peace Prize, with the support of more than 30 professors at colleges in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. They said Williams probably had saved hundreds of lives by turning young people away from violent confrontation and had persuaded thousands to leave or stay out of gangs — and could continue to do so.
NAACP President Bruce Gordon said Williams’ “unique experiences, insights and perspectives enable him to reach young people as no other person I know.”
Tookie Williams was, in a word, rehabilitated. He was no longer a danger to society. He had become a valuable asset.
But that was not enough for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Clearly seeking to shore up declining support from his conservative base, the governor turned down Williams’ plea for clemency. He said he could not spare him because Williams refused to confess to murders he denied committing. The governor insisted on the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth justice used by gangs, insisted on the state responding to alleged acts of killing with its own act of killing.
“It would be refreshing to see the state articulate the values of grace, mercy and redemption,” noted State Assemblyman Mark Leno. “Unfortunately, the governor missed an opportunity to do just that.”
And so 51-year-old Tookie Williams was strapped down on a gurney in the death chamber at San Quentin Prison a few minutes after midnight on December 13. Thirty-nine witnesses stared in mute and horrified or revengeful witness as a nurse struggled for 12 minutes to insert a needle into his heavily muscled arm, and for 24 minutes more until the poison finally killed him.
Singer Joan Baez, who was among more than 2,000 protesters outside the prison, aptly described it as “a planned, efficient, calculated, antiseptic, cold-blooded murder.”
That was all right, however, with those who endorsed Schwarzenegger’s Neanderthal brand of justice. “Kill Tookie!” two shock jocks broadcasting live shouted into microphones. Behind them a man carried a sign, “Hang the Bastard.” Several passing motorists rolled down their windows to join in with choruses of “Kill him!”
One of the many young people who said their lives had been changed by Williams saw the execution as evidence that “no matter how good you become, they still crush you. This guy couldn’t have got any better.”
Could there possibly be a stronger argument against capital punishment?