It’s not about Tookie

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER should have granted clemency -- to Donald Beardslee, the convicted murderer executed in January. Beardslee didn’t have celebrity advocates making his case, like Stanley Tookie Williams did. But if Schwarzenegger had commuted Beardslee’s sentence to life in prison without parole, he would have made clear that no one would be put to death on his watch. And he could have explained that a civilized society doesn’t kill for retribution and should certainly not continue doing so when it’s become clear that the judicial system’s margin of error is unacceptably high.

Alas, Schwarzenegger failed to stake out that principled position. So Williams, who was scheduled to be executed shortly after midnight, always faced an uphill battle in seeking clemency. The governor turned him down because he does not consider capital punishment to be about our values as a society, but about the merits of the convicted supplicant.

Williams was the founder of the Crips street gang who was sentenced to death in 1981 for four horrific murders. He later spoke out against gang violence. Schwarzenegger was right to question the sincerity of Williams’ redemption, though we are left to wonder about the relevance of this inquiry. If the punishment is meted out for the crime, why should the criminal’s behavior on death row make any difference?

Schwarzenegger’s five-page explanation of his decision shows the essential futility of this inquiry. At one point he is reduced to citing the list of names in the dedication to one of Williams’ books, elaborating in a footnote why he objects to the inclusion of a killer named George Jackson. If Williams had dedicated his book instead to nuns or police officers, would Schwarzenegger have commuted his sentence? Schwarzenegger could easily have concluded, as he did, that Williams’ redemption is merely a “hollow promise” -- and still have granted him clemency. But he could only have done so if he’d recognized in the Beardslee case that capital punishment is always wrong because it is incompatible with our values.

Those who opposed Williams’ plea argue that he deserved his fate, but the people of California don’t deserve to play the role of executioner. The state should follow the example of Illinois, which imposed a moratorium on executions in 2000 in response to mounting evidence that the system is not foolproof.


The population of California’s death row now stands at 647, with the next execution, of Clarence Ray Allen, scheduled for Jan. 17. Allen, who is 75 years old, blind and confined to a wheelchair, is unlikely to attract the kind of attention that accompanied the debate about Williams. If the governor feels compelled to issue a treatise explaining his decision in that case, he should take the opportunity to address the larger injustice of capital punishment.