Glitz and Gore of Williams Case Draw Foreign Media

Times Staff Writer

European reporters have swarmed enthusiastically around the story of Stanley Tookie Williams. And why not?

The pending execution of the convicted killer allows them to talk about class and race in America, and mark another milepost in the enduring discussion about the last Western democracy to sanction the death penalty.

And then there’s the “glitter,” as one Italian reporter put it last week -- supplied by California’s European-born, movie-star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and by the virtual Greek chorus of Williams’ celebrity supporters, including actors Jamie Foxx and Danny Glover, and rap star Snoop Dogg.

The stars of glitz, gore and glamour last aligned for the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

“It’s got a lot of gosh-wow to it, doesn’t it?” David Willis, the BBC’s West Coast correspondent, said after a clemency hearing for Williams in Schwarzenegger’s office Thursday morning. “It’s just a very layered and interesting story.”


And so Willis filed three two-minute packages on the Williams case and appeared in half a dozen other live shots in a 24-hour period ending Thursday. All those stories were beamed back to England and the rest of the British network’s worldwide market.

French, German, Greek and Italian reporters covering the case expressed many of the same feelings -- feeding an appetite for stories from their home offices that has grown as the time for Schwarzenegger’s decision grows short. Without clemency, Williams is scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

Indicating the magnitude of the story in recent days, particularly in Europe, Paolo Bonolis, one of Italy’s most popular television personalities, conducted an eight-minute telephone interview with Williams on the nighttime magazine program “Il Senso della Vita” (The Sense of Life).

Many of the continent’s other top news programs plan to weigh in with extended packages in coming days.

The overseas fixation on American death cases is not new.

Many European newspapers and television news programs carried reports after Kenneth Lee Boyd died of lethal injection Dec. 2, the 1,000th execution since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the death penalty to resume in 1976.

Nearly half a century earlier, California Gov. Pat Brown created a sensation when he attempted to save “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman from the gas chamber. London newspapers gave the rapist’s case bigger play than even the 1960 birth of Queen Elizabeth’s second son, Prince Andrew, said Brown biographer Ethan Rarick.

Although today’s foreign reporters said they intended to present the Williams case in all its complexity, several acknowledged that they harbored grave personal concerns about the American death penalty that they believe were shared by their audiences back home.

“This is a Christian nation with a Christian president who believes in Christian principles, including forgiveness,” Karin Stewart, a correspondent for Germany’s Spiegel television, said outside Thursday’s clemency hearing. “So one would assume that the death penalty would be somewhat of a conflict with those Christian principles. I think that is one of the problems people have with it.”

Thierry Vivier, working on a 20-minute piece for the French-German television magazine program “Reportage,” said the European belief that America metes out justice unequally is so strong it goes unstated in his coverage. “It’s pretty obvious to most people,” Vivier said. “They assume black people are not treated the way they should be in this country; that would be common sense among a number of people.”

Ramzy Malouki, Los Angeles bureau chief for France’s Canal Plus network, said some American laws and procedures baffle his audience -- particularly how states have the power to impose the death penalty, and carry it out with such divergent frequency.

Vivier said the French also are perplexed at the decades-long delays that precede some executions. “They don’t understand the purpose of keeping someone for years and years and then killing them,” he said. “It has come down to the point of absurdity for some people.”

Luca Celada of Italy’s RAI network, also in Sacramento to cover the clemency hearing, said the death penalty “doesn’t look good to most Italians.” He recalled the outpouring of anguish and protests that greeted the deaths of a handful of Italian soldiers in the Iraq war.

“We had a huge resonance when we had a half-dozen fatalities in Iraq,” Celada said. “I would only say there seems to be a much higher tolerance for [death] in this country.”

The foreign media listened intently when a prosecutor followed the Thursday clemency hearing with a vivid description of the four shotgun slayings for which Williams was convicted in 1979.

Lead defense attorney Peter Fleming Jr., in contrast, made limited remarks in Williams’ defense and rebuffed most questions from reporters who packed the room.

Celada seemed troubled by the lack of advocacy from the Williams camp.

“This was peculiar what they did,” Celada commented to a colleague afterward. “I think it was real defeatism. I can’t believe it.”

Several of the European journalists said though the story of Williams, who helped create the Crips street gang, was compelling, they recognized the importance of the victims’ stories.

“The editors have been very keen on highlighting the victims’ relatives, rather than glamorizing the story, as one can in television, with Jamie Foxx and Snoop Dogg and all these celebrities,” said the BBC’s Willis. “We wanted to make sure we took adequate time in depicting the suffering of the families.”

But in the end, Willis said, the outsize nature of the players in the case is the factor that will keep drawing public interest in England and the rest of the world: “I think they’re wondering: ‘Is a movie star, a man who was playing the Terminator at the local movie theater 10 minutes ago, now deciding the fate of this man?’

“That is America. That is politics. And that’s why we are so interested in what you folks are up to over here.”