Telling His Story to Save His Life
So obscure that his conviction for four murders barely made headlines, death row inmate Stanley Tookie Williams owes his notoriety as much to a determined woman who stood by him and to committed death penalty opponents as to his shift from gangster to anti-gang activist.
During a jailhouse visit in 1993 to research a book on gangs, writer Barbara Becnel discovered that Williams, who is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13, had renounced his gang past. Over the next two years, Becnel shed her doubts about the co-founder of the Crips and helped him work to persuade youths to avoid gangs.
She arranged for Williams to speak by telephone to youth and criminal justice groups, and edited his series of children’s books. Death penalty opponents also took up his cause, pushing him into the limelight by nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature, prestigious nominations that are surprisingly easy to make.
Eventually Becnel negotiated a deal for the movie “Redemption,” which starred Jamie Foxx as Williams.
Now Becnel is spearheading a campaign to persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute Williams’ death sentence to life in prison without parole. Schwarzenegger has scheduled a closed clemency hearing for Williams for Dec. 8.
Entertainers including Foxx, Elliott Gould, Danny Glover, Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson, William Baldwin, Mike Farrell, Harry Belafonte, Edward Asner, Jackson Browne, Russell Crowe, Richard Dreyfuss, Gabriel Byrne, Snoop Dogg, Bianca Jagger, and politicians such as former state Sen. Tom Hayden, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl support clemency for Williams.
“He’s probably now one of the most famous of California inmates [awaiting] execution because of all the media attention,” said Alex Alonso, who studies gangs and owns the website streetgangs.com.
Currently the executive director of a nonprofit group in Richmond, Calif., in the Bay Area, Becnel, 55, downplays her role in the work Williams has done from death row. She said she is merely “the hub” to whom Williams and others bring suggestions.
A tall, striking African American with long, curly brown hair and rectangular glasses, Becnel directs a staff of 50 in a converted hospital on a litter-strewn Richmond street. “Once people come up with ideas how to help, they track me down,” she said.
Becnel said she cares for Williams as a brother. Williams has described her as his “human angel” and his “intellectual sounding board.”
It was Becnel who suggested that Williams go public with his change of heart by making a videotaped speech that she showed at a gang peace summit in 1993. The tape mesmerized the gang audience, Becnel said.
Even then, she wrestled with doubts about his sincerity. When Williams told her that he wanted to write children’s books, a publisher said he first had to write a book about the allure of gangs. Williams turned the publisher down. “We are not that desperate,” she quoted Williams as saying.
Becnel said she came to believe in him. “If it was really about him, and not the kids, he would have” written the more marketable book, she said.
Becnel spent her own money to fly to a booksellers’ convention in Chicago in 1995 to try to find a publisher for the children’s series.
“I was a woman on a mission,” she said. “It took me two days to walk the McCormick convention center.”
After Williams’ first set of books was published in 1996 and his recorded apology for starting the Crips was distributed to some California schools, Becnel launched a website, www.tookie.com, where Williams could share ideas for steering kids away from gangs.
Farrell, board president of Death Penalty Focus, a group that is trying to abolish the death penalty, said he met Becnel through a mutual friend and, over lunch, discussed making a movie about Williams’ transformation in prison.
Becnel was not the first person whom Farrell had met who had a strong bond to a death row prisoner.
“When somebody meets somebody in that situation, they are often intensely emotionally affected by the hideousness of the situation,” Farrell said.
Around the same time, Becnel met a woman who was active in anti-violence efforts in Zurich, Switzerland, and took Williams’ campaign to Europe. Zurich, like many California cities, was troubled by gangs, with Somali and other immigrant youths engaged in violence, Becnel said.
She made several trips to Zurich and eventually met the Swiss national legislator Mario Fehr, who would nominate Williams for the Nobel in 2001. Legislators and professors in certain disciplines can nominate Nobel Prize candidates.
“The Nobel Prize nominations really catapulted his name into the media,” Alonso said. “That’s when reporters started calling me.”
Becnel fielded calls from Hollywood, eventually signing with 20th Century Fox to do a movie about Williams’ gradual change in prison.
In the meantime, Philip Gasper, an anti-death penalty activist and a professor at Notre Dame de Namur University, a small Catholic school in Belmont, near San Francisco, heard Williams speak via telephone to a UC Berkeley panel and decided to submit more Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
“Barbara and I came up with the idea, and she helped me through the process,” Gasper said.
“All you need to do to nominate is to write a nominating letter to the committee in Norway,” Gasper said.
Gasper’s prime motivation in writing the four-page letter was to save Williams’ life, he said, but he also thought that Williams deserved the prize because “his message has had such resonance with kids in the U.S. and in other countries.”
“I think he has probably saved a few hundred lives, at least,” said Gasper, who has nominated Williams four times for the peace prize.
Brown University English professor William Keach, who is also active in the campaign to end the death penalty, nominated Williams for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Williams, Keach said, “has a remarkable ability as a writer, with a message and a personal history that gives his writing force.”
Becnel said one of Williams’ books received two awards: one from a teachers group, and the other from the American Library Assn. in the “Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers” category.
At least 65,000 of Williams’ children’s books have been sold to schools and libraries, Becnel said. Urban students read them because they portray a world the children recognize, she said.
The Jamie Foxx movie aired in 2004, and Williams’ notoriety grew. Becnel said she asked Foxx to provide free copies of “Redemption” to community groups, schools and public agencies that requested them. The California Department of Corrections requested three copies, she said. Williams also received the 2005 Presidential Call to Service Award from a presidential council on volunteer service. The award was signed by President Bush, but the White House said the president knew nothing about it.
William A. Harrison, an archbishop with the Old Catholic Orthodox Church in Louisiana, told Becnel that he had been inspired by the Foxx movie and had recommended Williams for the award. Anyone who has done a required number of volunteer hours can get an award by mailing $1 or $2 to the council. “I was skeptical it could happen,” Becnel said. Harrison later called her and asked her where he should send Williams’ award.
Becnel said she had assumed that Williams would win his legal appeals because she considered his trial an outrage. There were no African Americans on the jury, and the prosecutor used jungle imagery in his closing arguments to portray Williams, Becnel said.
She said she didn’t view her work as a campaign to save Williams’ life until February, when a court rejected the inmate’s appeal.
She is now working with death penalty opponents to try to show that Williams’ work really has saved youths from gangs, and that he is worth more alive than dead.
Whether Williams’ efforts truly have reduced gang violence is debatable. Although he participated in gang truces in New Jersey and California, the peace was short-lived.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest in Boyle Heights who has devoted his life to working with gangs, said he has not read Williams’ books, several of which are out of print. Boyle also wasn’t sure of Williams’ influence.
“But his is an important voice, and you wouldn’t want to extinguish it,” the priest said. “You need all voices on deck, all angles, all perspectives and points of reference, and his is an utterly unique voice and you need it present.”
Opponents of clemency, including law enforcement and prison officials across the state, say Williams, by helping establish the Crips, is responsible for thousands of deaths. And, they add, he has shown no remorse for the brutal South Los Angeles murders of Albert Owens, a 7-Eleven store clerk, and motel owners Yen-I Yang, 65; Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 62; and their daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, 42.
Their opposition to Williams’ clemency bid has been fierce. A statewide prosecutors’ group that favors execution is particularly influential, Hayden said.
“If you want to be a statewide politician, you want them on your side,” Hayden said, “and they want photos of an executed Williams on their walls saying, ‘We got the founder of the Crips.’ ”
As the execution date nears, the campaigns for and against clemency have escalated. On Nov. 18, Becnel spoke to a group of several hundred people at UC Berkeley about Williams’ case. The next day, more than 1,000 people showed up outside San Quentin State Prison to ask Schwarzenegger to commute Williams’ sentence.
During the following week, Bianca Jagger and the Rev. Jesse Jackson visited Williams, and advocates released yet another list of supporters, including Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a Northern Ireland peace organizer.
As she was leaving one of her speaking engagements, Becnel said she and Williams have not talked about whom he would want present should his execution proceed as scheduled.
She said she was not allowing herself to think that far ahead.
Said Becnel: “I am driven right now to do everything I have to do to save his life.”