Williams Case a Question of Mercy

Times Staff Writers

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spares Stanley Tookie Williams from his scheduled execution at San Quentin State Prison next week, he will almost certainly be forced to anchor his decision in a rationale that has virtually disappeared from the modern clemency process: mercy.

Nationwide over the last 30 years, governors commuting death sentences have almost never cited a condemned man’s redemption as a reason to save his life. Rather, they typically act because of doubts about guilt, questions surrounding trial fairness, concerns about mental illness or worries that capital punishment disproportionately targets racial minorities.

In the Williams case, legal claims have been rejected repeatedly by courts. His bid for clemency is rooted entirely in what attorneys describe as his metamorphosis behind bars, from the co-founder of the murderous Crips street gang to a peacemaker who writes children’s books and preaches nonviolence.

Whether that transformation persuades Schwarzenegger to cancel Williams’ death by lethal injection remains to be seen. The governor has not revealed details of his thinking on Williams, and aides would only say that he has been in daily contact with his legal team leading up to today’s closed clemency hearing in the Capitol.


Although the Republican governor supports the death penalty, an advisor has said that Schwarzenegger would be open to clemency in the right case. And Schwarzenegger’s views on crime and punishment are more nuanced than those of his two predecessors -- who presided over 10 executions between them -- and he has said the decision in the Williams case is one that he dreads.

In deciding the fate of two other condemned men, the governor rejected clemency, finding no evidence compelling him to act. In January, after he denied clemency for triple murderer Donald Beardslee and allowed the execution to proceed, Schwarzenegger told journalists in his native Austria that the episode marked “the hardest day” of his life.

The law, meanwhile, offers little guidance. There are no rules when it comes to executive commutations, and previous governors characterize clemency decisions as among the most challenging and emotional they faced in office. The public clamor only exacerbates the pressure.

“Clemency is an awesome responsibility,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who rejected bids from five men who were executed. While Schwarzenegger will clearly be “aware that the world is watching,” Davis said, the task is “a very solitary decision, a matter between the governor and his conscience.”


Former Gov. Pete Wilson agreed that “you don’t take lightly denying life to anyone.” On the other hand, he said, Californians have “expressed their approval at the ballot box of imposing the death penalty, and so I think anyone seeking clemency has a very difficult standard to meet.”

On Wednesday, lawyers for Williams summarized the line of argument they would be making at today’s hearing, which the governor will attend, and said they would be presenting Schwarzenegger with a letter from Williams. They declined to reveal its contents.

Beginning at 10 a.m. today, the governor will hear the presentation from Williams’ attorneys and one from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Schwarzenegger’s aides said he would make no comment, and they could not predict when he might make his decision.

Public support for Williams’ clemency, meanwhile, has been intense among some Hollywood celebrities, world famous clergymen and teachers who use his books. Williams’ lawyers say tens of thousands of people have written letters and e-mails, urging that their client be allowed to live. And during the past week, supporters have bought full-page advertisements in newspapers, including The Times, to push for clemency.


Williams’ allies highlight his portfolio of accomplishment while incarcerated, which includes nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and ongoing efforts to discourage youths from joining gangs. Allowing Williams to live out his life in prison, they say, will preserve him as a force for good in society while validating the possibility of redemption in today’s criminal justice system.

“Tookie Williams is the ideal candidate for clemency because his time on death row has dramatically reinforced the notion that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” said Bryan Stevenson, an acclaimed death penalty appellate lawyer and professor at New York University Law School.

Prosecutors and survivors of Williams’ victims say his good works should not carry the day. They say Williams remains a man who took four lives and helped launch a gang war that has ravaged American cities.

Williams’ pursuit of forgiveness rings hollow, they add, because he has neither apologized to his victims nor agreed to participate in a debriefing with law enforcement officials, a process in which gang dropouts share what they know.


“He seeks redemption, but he won’t even take responsibility for murders committed by his own hand, to say nothing of the thousands to die in gang wars he helped encourage,” said Joshua Marquis, district attorney for Clatsop County in Oregon and a nationally prominent supporter of the death penalty.

Williams has said he will not apologize for crimes he denies committing, and that to debrief officials would make him a snitch.

Schwarzenegger comes to the clemency decision after a year of sharp political disappointment. Polls show his popularity sagging, and the November special election he called ended in failure for the governor.

Analysts say commuting a convicted murderer’s sentence now could be politically perilous; Schwarzenegger would be the first California governor to do so since Ronald Reagan spared the life of a brain-damaged killer, Calvin Thomas, in 1967. Though support for the death penalty has waned, about two-thirds of Californians continue to endorse it, polls show.


Aides say that Schwarzenegger will rely on 30-minute presentations by attorneys at today’s hearing, and on the guidance of his legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoch, and the man who previously held that post and remains an advisor, Peter Siggins.

“This is a decision that transcends political considerations, and he looks at it within a vacuum,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There is a life to consider and also the family of the victims to consider and the weight of justice. In the long run, those things endure, rather than any short-term political consequence.”

The official also suggested that while a “mercy decision is not precluded,” Schwarzenegger laid out strict standards in his previous decisions rejecting clemency.

Those cases involved Beardslee, who killed two Bay Area women in 1981, and Kevin Cooper, who murdered four people in Chino Hills after escaping from a California prison in 1983. Beardslee was executed in January, while Cooper, whose clemency plea drew support from a prominent chorus of Americans, including some in the movie business, was spared after an appellate court ordered a lower court to consider new DNA tests.


In detailed statements, Schwarzenegger focused heavily on the facts of those crimes and found the evidence of guilt overwhelming. With Beardslee, he said he was unmoved by claims of mental impairment and his model behavior in prison. With Cooper, he said that while the inmate’s religious conversion and mentoring of others were commendable, they did not “diminish the cruelty and destruction” he had inflicted.

Despite those cases, attorneys for Williams see reason for hope in Schwarzenegger’s record on other criminal justice issues. Unlike his predecessors, he has pushed rehabilitation in the state’s massive corrections department.

He also differs markedly from Davis and Wilson on granting parole to eligible murderers. Since Schwarzenegger took office, his parole board has judged 336 murderers rehabilitated and suitable for release. The governor approved freedom for 99 of those. Davis permitted only eight such inmates to go free during his five-year term.

Supporters of clemency hope that Schwarzenegger’s Austrian heritage may play a role in the decision as well. Austrians are strongly against capital punishment, and the governor has been criticized in his homeland for permitting Beardslee to be put to death.


Just after that execution, a Green Party official pushed unsuccessfully for national leaders to strip Schwarzenegger of his Austrian citizenship. And in the southern city of Graz, near Schwarzenegger’s birthplace, the Greens have led a drive to rename Schwarzenegger Stadium, a 15,350-seat soccer venue, because he supports the death penalty.

Schwarzenegger has suggested that growing up in such a culture left an imprint. But during a January trip to Austria, he also said that as governor of California, he was bound to enforce the state’s laws.

“I did not have a choice, since I represent as governor a population which is overwhelmingly for the death penalty,” he told the newspaper Kronen Zeitung.

Before the 1970s, governors in this country used their clemency power to grant gifts of mercy -- to those who had dramatically transformed themselves in prison, for example -- and to remedy a miscarriage of justice. But commutations have become rare -- and grants based on redemption almost never occur.


“Most governors seem to have forgotten that clemency is an executive act of mercy, not a quasi-judicial review,” said Elisabeth Semel, who runs the death penalty clinic at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

Since 1976, 231 death row inmates have been granted clemency, while 1,001 individuals have been executed. Three governors account for 184 of the commutations.

One was Illinois’ outgoing Republican governor George Ryan, who in January 2003 granted clemency to every inmate on death row, saying the state’s capital punishment system was “haunted by the demon of error -- error in determining guilt, error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.”

Georgia’s governor granted clemency to a killer in 1977 because he felt the man received a sentence that was disproportionate to that received by his co-defendant.


A Kentucky governor spared the life of a killer after concluding that the system had “perpetuated an injustice” by sentencing a man to death for a murder committed at the age of 17. Other governors have said a death sentence was inappropriate to the crime when a battered woman killed her husband.

Occasionally, clemencies are spurred by unanticipated forces. Such was the case in 1999, when Missouri’s Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, spared the life of convicted triple murderer Darrell Mease in response to a plea made by Pope John Paul II during a visit to the state.

Carnahan said he took the action out of “a deep and abiding respect for the pontiff and all that he represents.” He commuted only one other death sentence during his tenure, while permitting 38 executions.

But a plea from the pope is no guarantee of mercy, as Karla Faye Tucker found. Tucker, a born-again Christian who was the subject of a massive clemency drive supported by Pat Robertson, was executed in Texas in 1998 despite pressure from Pope John Paul II -- and her own telephone interview on “Larry King Live.”


In California this week, letters from legislators opposing and endorsing the execution were delivered to Schwarzenegger’s Capitol office. One came from state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who visited Williams in prison in October.

Romero asked the governor to show mercy, “like an Old Testament king with a sword and the power to spare the life of one who kneels before him.”

Williams says he has a link to the governor that few, if any, other condemned men could claim. During the 1970s, Williams said in a book he published last year, the two met when they were bodybuilders at Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica. Schwarzenegger was so impressed with Williams’ physique, the convict recounted, that he once remarked that Williams’ biceps looked like legs.

The governor has said he met many people during his immersion in the bodybuilding culture and could not recall whether Williams was among them.


At San Quentin this week, a spokesman said Williams, using his narrow bunk as a table, writes letters on a small typewriter and takes an occasional jog around the fenced enclosure set aside for death row inmates.

But mostly, he spends these days talking with a stream of visitors -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actor Jamie Foxx and others -- reading briefs from his lawyers inside his 41-square-foot cell, and waiting for an answer from Sacramento.






Death or life

Since the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the resumption of capital punishment in 1976, California has carried out 11 death sentences and commuted none. Ordinarily, clemency commutes a death sentence to life in prison.


*--* States Clemencies Executions Illinois* 172 12 Ohio 9 19 Virginia 7 94 Florida 6 60 Georgia 6 39 North Carolina 5 39 New Mexico 5 1 Indiana 3 16 Louisiana 2 27 Maryland 2 5 Missouri 2 66 Oklahoma 2 79 Texas 2 355 Alabama 1 34 Arkansas 1 27 Idaho 1 1 Kentucky 1 2 Montana 1 2 Nevada 1 11 Arizona 0 22 California 0 11 Colorado 0 1 Connecticut 0 1 Delaware 0 14 Mississippi 0 6 Nebraska 0 3 Oregon 0 2 Pennsylvania 0 3 South Carolina 0 35 Tennessee 0 1 Utah 0 6 Washington 0 4


* In 2003, former Gov. George Ryan granted clemency to all 167 inmates on death row.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center