Religious leaders–including presidents of three large black Baptist conventions–have joined rappers, actors, politicians and grassroots organizers of hip-hop culture in seeking clemency for Stan “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the notorious Crips gang, convicted of murder and scheduled to die by lethal injection Dec. 13.
The NAACP held a series of events over the last two weeks to raise awareness about the case. Williams, convicted of four murders during a robbery spree in 1979, maintains his innocence.
Williams’ defenders say race played a role in his conviction. African-Americans were stripped from his jury pool, and he was likened to a Bengal Tiger during closing arguments.
But more importantly, they say, Williams has turned his life around in prison, renouncing gang life and writing a series of nine children’s books deglamorizing crime, gangs and prison from his 9-by-4-foot cell at San Quentin Prison. He has been nominated five times for the Nobel Prize for his anti-gang work, and recently pledged to work with the NAACP on programs to reach at-risk youth if his life is spared.
That can only happen by order of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, either to grant clemency (which no governor has done since executions resumed in California in 1992) or to place a moratorium on executions until questions about racial discrimination in capital punishment are answered.
Four Nobel laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have appealed for clemency on his behalf. So have rapper Snoop Dogg, actor Mike Farrell and activist Bianca Jagger.
A number of rap and hip-hop artists came together on an album titled, “Redemption–Hip Hop United 2 Save Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams.”
Actor Jamie Foxx, another strong advocate for Williams, starred in a TV movie about his life, titled “Redemption,” last year.
Ten religious leaders, representing denominations with a combined 27 million worshippers, on Dec. 2 signed a letter asking California’s governor to grant clemency for Williams. Signers included Major Jemison, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc.; Stephen Thurston, president of The National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; and Melvin von Wade, president of the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America.
Heads of other predominantly black Christian denominations also signed on, along with Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism.
“Who is better to plead for the life of a human being than learned theologians who understand that God gives life and no man has the right to take what God has so graciously given,” Julius Hope, the NAACP’s director of religious affairs, said in a press release.
In their letter to Schwarzenegger, the faith leaders said they are “keenly aware of the adverse effects of crime in today’s society” and are “not requesting, nor seeking to send a message that criminal actions or behavior will be tolerated.”
But the leaders said Williams, “through his writings and efforts has made great strides to demonstrate positive change. He has openly expressed remorse for his actions and asked for forgiveness.”
In a soon-to-be-published essay, Williams said if granted clemency he will use the rest of his life to partner with the NAACP to pursue his vision of a “gang-free America.”
“In the beginning, redemption was an alien concept to me,” Williams wrote. “However, while in solitary confinement, during 1988 to 1994, I embarked upon a transitional path toward redemption. I underwent disciplined years of education, soul searching, edification, spiritual cultivation and battling my internal demons. Though I was loathed for being the co-founder of the Crips, my redemption caused me to repudiate my gang leadership role, to repudiate any affiliation with the Crips or other gangs.”
“Redemption has resurrected me from a mental and spiritual death,” Williams said. “It symbolizes the end of a bad beginning as well as a new start. Being redeemed has enabled me to reunite with God, reclaim my humanity, find inner peace and discover my raison d’etre–my reason to exist.”
Asked recently if he is prepared to die, Williams responded: “I’m prepared to live. Though execution looms like poisonous toxins, God’s gift of redemption revivifies my life. I inhale redemption and exhale joie de vivre. That’s why I do not fear death.”
Williams’ memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, is sold in music stores alongside hip-hop CDs. His educational Web site, www.tookie.com, and his Internet-based Protocol for Peace, he says, are “predicated on persuading youths and adults to not follow in my footsteps.”
Williams, now 51, was 16 when he and high school friend Raymond Washington began the Crips in South Los Angeles in 1971. Washington later was shot to death.
Williams was convicted of murders of Albert Williams, a 7-Eleven employee in Whittier, Calif., and the shotgun deaths of Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yu-Chin Yang Lin at a motel less than two weeks later.
Williams’ lawyers say his conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, with no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and that the case relied heavily on the testimony of jailhouse informants, who were promised immunity in exchange for testifying.
Prosecutors, however, say Williams is a cold-blooded killer who never accepted responsibility for his crimes. Numerous appeals have been denied.
One legislator criticized the governor for even considering clemency.
“Tookie Williams is the co-founder of one of the most violent street gangs in Los Angeles,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange. “He has shown no remorse for the four people he brutally murdered and has offered no apology to the victims’ families.”
“A jury convicted him and sentenced him to death,” Spitzer said. “He has exhausted every judicial appeal over the past 20 years. It is time that the sentence imposed upon him is carried out.”
A former prosecutor, Spitzer said the numerous appeals allowed in death penalty cases “are ridiculous and arguably add to people’s cynicism of the criminal justice system.”
The NAACP in 2002 called on President Bush, governors and state legislatures to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty until procedures are developed to remedy racial disparities. According to one study, blacks receive the death penalty at a 38-percent higher rate than all other races. Other studies show that those who kill whites have a greater chance of receiving the death penalty than those who kill blacks.
NAACP President Bruce Gordon visited Williams at the San Quentin Prison for more than two hours. “Stan gives us a unique opportunity to help save lives by turning around some of these young people who are inclined to join a street gang,” Gordon said. “He can speak with credibility unmatched by most youth workers and counselors.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.