A Stupid Waste
I met Stanley Tookie Williams, co-founder of the Crips street gang, at San Quentin. Several times we sat locked together in a metal cage and talked, sharing food I’d purchase from the vending machines. He’s the same age I am, early 50s, a big man gone gray at the temples. You can see how imposing he’d have been in his youth. Now he’s surprisingly soft-spoken, picks his words carefully, has a writer’s ear for language.
Before meeting him, I’d read several of his books. “Life In Prison” is an unsentimental account of his surroundings. It is aimed at young adults, aimed directly at dissuading them of romantic notions they might hold about the place. It is knowingly and beautifully written.
His children’s book series, written just a few notches above the “see Spot run” level, are deceptively simple. At first you can’t believe he’d be addressing the grim subjects — coping with violence and drugs and fear and conformity — to fourth-graders. Then you realize, as Stan did, that if you don’t reach his intended audience at that age, the gangs will have gotten there first.
All this was research for the TV movie I wrote about Stan Williams —"Redemption” — whose premiere attracted many of the people, Snoop Dogg among them, now calling on the governor to commute Stan’s death sentence.
I interviewed Stan to understand him as a character. In doing so, I came to see him as a man, which is why I count myself among those who believe that his prison conversion was real. I also believe, as Father Greg Boyle, director of Homeboy Industries, has said, that Stan is “not the person he was 27 years ago, and if he is granted clemency, his impact on kids, who plan their funerals and not their futures, will continue.” This is more important than most people from privileged backgrounds seem to understand — more important than I understood going into the project.
L.A. County prosecutors, among others, say “Williams deserves to die for his crimes and for helping start a gang that has claimed thousands of lives over the years.” Although there is more than one account of the Crips’ genesis, Stan himself says he was a co-founder of the gang, and no one, least of all him, denies that this was a bad thing.
But he’s on death row because a jury convicted him of four murders, period. Justice needs to be specific. If the prosecutors want him killed for starting the Crips, they need to bring charges, go to trial and get a conviction. The truth is, a new type of street gang was emerging in Los Angeles’ poor neighborhoods in the early 1970s, and a Crips-like cancer, with its culture of retaliation and blood vengeance, would have spread with or without Stan Williams.
Law enforcement officials say that Stan’s redemption can’t be real because he refuses to participate with corrections officials in “debriefing” sessions about gang members. Does this really signal “no redemption” and “no atonement”? Last month, one prisoner killed another in the lunch line at the L.A. County Jail. How long do you think Stan Williams would last in San Quentin, surrounded by Crips, if he started cooperating? His chances of surviving lethal injection are probably greater. So it’s disingenuous to say his lack of cooperation signals anything but a desire to live.
The district attorney has said that the evidence against Stan is “overwhelming.” To most of us, that means something like several eyewitnesses, a confession made to a pair of detectives, a crime weapon found in the possession of the suspect, the suspect’s fingerprints on the weapon, a slam-dunk ballistics test tying the weapon to the crime . In Stan’s case, there was none of the above.
Stan has said, “I will never apologize for capital crimes that I did not commit.” One of the downsides of being a criminal is that people forever after doubt your word. And generally that’s not a bad rule of thumb. But a study on the death penalty done at Northwestern University, showed that about 6% of death row inmates in Illinois were later exonerated. Which indicates that at least some of the guys claiming they didn’t do it, really didn’t do it. So even if you believe in the death penalty and don’t believe Stan Williams, there is, statistically, a chance that the guy’s telling the truth.
The families of the murder victims — the Owenses, the Yangs — have lost what is irreplaceable. The reporting in this paper alone of their pain and their sorrow and doubts has been searing to read. Perhaps I’m wrong and they do have a right to more than keeping a guy in jail for the rest of his life. Perhaps they do have a right to blood vengeance as administered by the state of California. And maybe the state will get lucky and kill the right guy.
But the state will also be killing a man who, guilty or innocent, is now doing far more good than harm. Critics say that all this do-gooding is just a way for Stan to save his skin. My experience with the guy says no, he really does want to spare mothers and brothers the agony faced by the Owenses and Yangs.
In writing “Redemption,” I met many young men at risk of joining street gangs. These young men will not listen to me, will not listen to you, will not listen to George W. Bush. But they will listen to — and perhaps be moved and motivated by — Stan Williams.
This prisoner offers California a rare resource with which to interrupt the cycle that produces crop after crop of killer Crips. To squander that opportunity in an effort to eliminate one former Crip — who may be innocent of the murders for which he was convicted — would be plain stupid.
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