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Death Upheld for Crips Founder
A federal appeals court Tuesday upheld the death sentence of former Los Angeles street gang co-founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams for four 1979 murders. But in a rare move, the court suggested that Gov. Gray Davis consider commuting the sentence because of Williams' "laudable" anti-gang efforts while in prison, which led to his being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Williams, 48, one of the two primary founders of the notorious Crips gang, asserted that his constitutional rights were violated at a 1981 trial in which he was convicted of the robbery-murders of an employee at a Whittier 7-Eleven and the owner of a South Los Angeles motel, the owner's wife and the man's daughter.
Williams contended that jurors had been prejudiced against him because of excessive courtroom security during the trial, allegedly coerced testimony from a witness beaten by the police and unconstitutionally deficient representation by his trial lawyer--particularly in the penalty phase of his trial.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected all those claims. "Williams is not entitled to relief from his conviction or sentence in the federal courts," Circuit Judge Procter Hug Jr. wrote in the conclusion of his 96-page opinion.
However, he pointedly noted that "federal courts are not the only forum for relief, and that Williams may file a petition for clemency with the governor of California," citing the section of the California Constitution that gives the governor unbridled power to grant executive clemency.
"We are aware," Hug continued, "of Williams' 2001 Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his laudable efforts opposing gang violence from his prison cell, notably his line of children's books, subtitled 'Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence,' and his creation of the Internet Project for Street Peace.
"Although Williams' good works and accomplishments since incarceration make him a worthy candidate for the exercise of gubernatorial discretion, they are not matters that we in the federal judiciary are at liberty to take into consideration in our review of Williams' habeas corpus petition," Hug concluded before affirming the convictions and sentence, thus paving the way for Williams to be executed.
Unless the panel's ruling is overturned by a larger group of 9th Circuit judges or the U.S. Supreme Court, a clemency petition from Williams is likely to reach Davis' desk sometime next year.
So far, the governor has spurned clemency requests from death row inmates all five times they have been presented to him since he took office in 1999. Davis has also rejected almost all parole requests from killers and is facing a legal challenge to his parole practices in the state Supreme Court.
Dane Gillette, who heads the capital appeals unit in the California attorney general's office, said he was pleased that the death sentence had been upheld but expressed surprise at the 9th Circuit statements regarding clemency. "I never have seen anything like this, certainly nothing so blatant or specific," he said.
"Given what I have read about this case and talking to the attorneys who handled it, I don't think Tookie is a good candidate for clemency under any circumstance," said Gillette, who emphasized that this was his personal view because the attorney general's office has no formal involvement in clemency matters.
When an inmate applies for clemency, the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case responds to the clemency petition.
Maria Stratton, the chief federal public defender in Los Angeles, whose office is now co-counsel for Williams, said she was "very disappointed" in the ruling. She said the office had been hopeful that the convictions and death sentence would be reversed.
"We think Williams was ill-served by his trial lawyer and deserved relief," Stratton said. "While it's very kind of the court to suggest that we apply for clemency--which, of course, we will--we think the court should have granted relief, and we will ask for a rehearing urging them to do so."
In his lengthy opinion, Hug first reviewed the facts of the murder of 7-Eleven employee Albert Lewis Owens on Feb. 27, 1979. The testimony included a statement from Alfred Coward, an immunized government witness, who said he, Williams and two other men smoked "sherms," cigarettes laced with PCP, before the robbery.
Coward testified that Williams shot out the store's television monitor before shooting Owens in the head with a sawed-off shotgun. Coward also said the four men split $120 taken from the cash register. He said, according to the court decision, that, later in the day, "Williams told his brother about Owens, saying: 'You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him.' Williams then made a growling noise and laughed hysterically for a number of minutes."
Hug also reviewed the murder of motel owner Robert Yang, his wife and daughter at the Brookhaven Motel on South Vermont Avenue on March 11, 1979. Four witnesses provided testimony identifying Williams as the perpetrator.
The convictions were upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1988. Eleven years later, U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Wilson in Los Angeles rejected Williams' claims that his constitutional rights had been violated. The 9th Circuit upheld that decision Tuesday.
Among other things, the appeals panel said it had been reasonable for Williams' trial lawyer not to offer any mitigating evidence at the penalty phase, emphasizing that Williams had said he wanted no witnesses presented and that the attorney had interviewed potential mitigation witnesses, including psychiatrists who had examined Williams.
Williams, now 48, has been on death row since 1981. In 1996, after writing several books with writer Barbara C. Becnel warning youths of the perils of gang life, he became the subject of feature stories by journalists across the nation.
In December 2000, Mario Fehr, a member of the Swiss parliament and an opponent of the death penalty, nominated Williams for the Nobel Prize. Inner-city teachers said the books had had a very positive impact on young students. But the Nobel nomination stirred an outcry in law enforcement circles.
On Tuesday, state Deputy Atty. Gen. Lisa J. Brault, one of the lawyers who argued the case successfully in the 9th Circuit, said she was "very pleased" with the decision. "The focus should be on the 95 pages that discuss how Mr. Williams received a fair trial and [how] the jury's verdict of death was proper, rather than the one-paragraph suggestion that he might be worthy of clemency."
Both Elisabeth Semel, who runs the death penalty clinic at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, and Daniel J. Kobil, a professor at Capital Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and a clemency expert, said they were unaware of any previous appellate decision in which the judges made a similar clemency suggestion about a death row inmate.