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A Barbaric End to a Barbaric Life

In an odd way, the most disturbing thing about watching a man die by lethal injection is how discreetly death creeps into the room.

No sudden jolt, no snapping of the neck at the end of a rope, no severed head.

The inmate gets a shot, he closes his eyes, he sleeps.

The room where Stanley Tookie Williams was killed Tuesday morning is set up like a theater, with neat rows of spectators sitting or standing on risers to view the execution.

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Late Monday night, as one of 39 witnesses, I was ushered past dozens of guards and prison officials and into the viewing area a few feet from the octagonal death chamber.

Before us in the stuffy little auditorium, the curtains were opened, Williams was led in by guards, and the midnight show began -- a dark, sinister, medieval drama in an archaic prison.

Never having witnessed an execution, I had tossed my name into the ring of potential spectators in order to see precisely what we’re all a party to in a state that sanctions capital punishment. And now here I was, watching the clinical, calculated procedure used by the state of California to kill a man.

I watched the executioners struggle to tap a vein, digging into Williams’ arms for minutes that seemed like hours. He was calm, if exasperated by the delay. Splayed out on his back and secured with tape and restraints, he lifted his head to study our faces, and he mouthed goodbyes to supporters who shared these close quarters with the relatives of his victims.

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There was no apparent sign of suffering on Williams’ part when the lethal injection did its duty. He lay motionless for several minutes before he was declared dead and the curtains were closed, show over.

“The state of California just killed an innocent man,” three of his supporters shouted in unison.

That struck me as an insult to the families of Williams’ victims. Of all the things Williams might have been, he wasn’t innocent, and watching him die made me feel no differently about the man.

His victims, all four of them, were shotgunned as if it were a cheap thrill for Williams. And as one of the first Crips, he started something that destroyed everything in its path, bringing genocide to neighborhoods on top of all the other problems.

Williams was a tough guy in prison too, spending years in solitary confinement for his mayhem behind bars before he took a different tack. His anti-gang books and speeches from death row were great gestures, but the Nobel Peace Prize nominations were preposterous, and the marketing of Williams as a hero was offensive.

If he were truly redeemed, he would have taken responsibility for the murders, he would have rejected the duplicitous code of honor among those who refuse to tell what they know, and his dying words would have been a call for the dismantling of the gang he started.

Those who tried to cast Williams as a martyr, including the usual Hollywood rabble, once again picked the wrong man to carry the banner against the death penalty. They made a cause of Tookie Williams as others have done with Mumia Abu Jamal, the Philadelphia cop killer and death row inmate whose claim of innocence is pure fiction, despite the celebrity bestowed on him.

And yet, watching Williams put to death Tuesday morning by agents of the government -- his execution sanctioned in a country where godliness and virtue are synonymous, even as torture and execution are defended -- made me all the more certain that capital punishment is barbaric.

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Though I don’t question Williams’ guilt, no one can dispute that across America, class, race and money figure prominently in the circumstances of crime and the quality of legal defense. Since 1973, in fact, 122 death row inmates have been exonerated or granted new hearings. A better poster child for abolishing the death penalty is No. 123, whoever that might be.

Twelve U.S. states no longer use capital punishment, and the possibility of a mistake is one of the reasons 40 countries have abolished the death penalty since 1990, including Mexico, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Senegal. In 2004, the United States followed only China, Iran and Vietnam in the number of executions.

Coming down the death row pike in California is a violent killer named Horace Edwards Kelly, whose wicked crimes are not in question. But he has been diagnosed as severely mentally ill, if not retarded, and was virtually tortured as a child.

Should we feel just as good about killing Kelly as we’re supposed to feel about killing Williams? Will the premeditated and clinical execution of a feeble-minded man make us more civilized, more humane or any safer? Is life in a cage not enough to satisfy our puritanical beliefs or lust for blood?

Apparently not. Modern as we are, we still live by the law of an eye for an eye -- as long as it doesn’t get too messy.

The needle is perfect. He closes his eyes, he’s gone.

It’s much easier to handle that way. Not just for the person put to death, but for us.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.

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